Friday, November 4, 2011

Machine of Death: The Cat or the Piano

First, a word of thanks to the trio behind Machine of Death, David Malki, Ryan North, and Matthew Bennardo. I promise not to vandalize your Wikipedia articles.

When I was younger and had young fever dreams of being an accomplished and celebrated author, I read lots of books and submission guidelines. All of them were realistically discouraging. This is appropriate and necessary, to dissuade the talentless from fooling themselves and the cliched from, well, being cliched. But for the Nick Drakes of the world, the shy but talented who take the worst toll from rejection, it can sap them of their will to create and rob the world of the chance to experience their gifts. What I found at Machine of Death was the opposite of this, the most open and encouraging process to novice creators imaginable. While I have no illusions that I have anything approaching the talent of Nick Drake, this openess helped me get excited about this project and start writing again, something I haven't done in far too long. Regardless of their rejection and whether or not I actually ever write anything worth publishing somewhere, I'll be grateful for that and glad I was part of this process. Rejection is hard, and usually lonely. But, at least for those of us on Twitter, it was a shared experience, and that was exciting and dulled the blow when it finally came. Maybe we can all start a message board somewhere and keep that sense of shared encouragement going.

The Cat or the Piano

     “Welcome back. I’m Charlie Rose, and tonight we’re discussing what has been colloquially become known as The Machine. We’re here tonight with two outspoken critics of The Machine, Rabbi Moshe Telushkin, ethicist at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, and Dr. Randall Dobrzynski, physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. Rabbi, you’ve written extensively about The Machine and its implications for free will.”
     “Yes, free will and personal responsibility. Religions have long wrestled with the question of free will in a world preordained by an all-powerful God, and I do not believe that the question we are discussing today differs significantly in its moral dimensions. It has long been a tenet of many religious faiths that despite their actions being preordained by God or another deity, people are still responsible for their moral choices and their consequences. In Christianity, the most notorious example is Judas, who despite his actions being not only preordained but absolutely necessary for Christianity itself to even exist, is still considered responsible for those actions and as a such is universally reviled and condemned to eternal suffering.
     “So,” the rabbi continued, “when confronted with this Machine which identifies your preordained fate, many act as if their actions have been removed from the arena of moral choice and responsibility. They can react in quite an irresponsible fashion: alcohol and chemical abuse, reckless sexual acts, ignoring their physical safety in a myriad of ways. What they also ignore is their responsibility for these reckless choices and the fact that they still remain moral actors.”
     “Dr. Dobrzynski,” Charlie asked, startling the physicist slightly. “You’ve discussed the scientific aspects of the Machine and the issue of moral choice.”
     “Yes, well,” Randall said, before clearing his throat. “The Rabbi and I differ when it comes to the issue of a preordained fate, but like him I’m also concerned about people removing themselves from making moral choices. In a way, they’re giving up their free will. It’s in a metaphorical way, but I’m concerned that they’re also doing it in quite a literal way as well.”
     “A literal way?”
     “Well, instead of just giving up responsibility for their choices, they’re also giving up their choices, or at least one very important choice. I’m not sure that the Machine is telling people what will happen. I think it’s deciding what will happen.”
     “That’s a bold statement. What’s the scientific basis for that conclusion?” Charlie asked.
     “At the risk of oversimplifying: There are, basically, subatomic particles that exist in multiple states simultaneously and you can’t know what state the particle is until you observe it. There’s a thought experiment that helps explain this, a scenario that serves as a kind of scientific metaphor, something we’ve been using in quantum physics for about a century, devised by Erwin Schrödinger, a German– um, I mean Austrian physicist.
     “So,” Randall continued, gesturing along with his words, “you have a cat in a box. In the box with the cat is a lethal gas that’s activated by particle decay. If the particle is in one state, it releases the gas and kills the cat. If the particle is in another state, the cat is fine. But you don’t know which until you open the box. In a sense, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time, because that choice hasn’t yet been made.”
     “Maybe we should keep the box closed,” Charlie suggested.
     “That’s precisely my point, Charlie. By not opening the box, the fate of the cat is still an open question. It’s the same with the Machine. By opening the box, so to speak, we’re not only learning our fate, but deciding it as well.”
     “But,” the Rabbi interjected, “if this Machine is literally, as you say, deciding our fate, wouldn’t that decision require some action on the part of the Machine? After all, you need the gas to slay the cat, and the particle to activate the gas. So whatever action the Machine is taking, you could measure that, couldn’t you?”
     “Yes,” Randall agreed, “and that’s part of the theory that we’re investigating. It’s why we’ve reopened some of the particle accelerators at Fermilab. We’re hoping to measure particle activity in some way.”
     “Stephen Hawking has theorized that it had something to do with quantum ‘strings’,” Charlie pointed out.
     “Yes, string theory is a definite possibility.”
     “So,” Charlie asked, raising an eyebrow, “have you measured any activity yet from the Machine?”
     “No. No, we haven’t.”

     “So you’ve come down here to see how real science is done?” Randall quipped when Harvey entered the room. Dr. Harvey Doyle was the head of Administration at Fermilab, in charge of money and grants and paperwork and everything else that Randall hated about the practice of science. By all rights, he probably should have hated Harvey too, but despite his best efforts, he was very fond of the jovial administrator.
     “Nah, I gave that up ages ago,” Harvey said with a grin. “That sort of thing is best left to the experts like you.”
     “Flattery, Harvey? Now I know there’s something wrong.”
     “Well, there’s this thing,” the administrator continued, his smile faltering. Whenever Harvey started a sentence like that, Randall knew there was trouble. Hell, there was usually trouble when Harvey did as little as walk in the room.
     “There’s been a bit of...controversy about your appearance on Charlie Rose,” he explained.
     “Really? I didn’t think anyone watched Charlie Rose,” Randall replied flatly.
     “You’re right, probably nobody outside of pseudointellectuals and insomniacs. But there is a short YouTube clip of highlights that’s proven to be quite popular.”
     “Of course there is,” the physicist sighed. There was a Youtube clip of everything these days. “So what’s happened? Is PETA campaigning to save Schrödinger’s cat?”
     “You know, it’s one thing to sternly disapprove of the Machine in abstract like those mothers in the Anti-MoD League or an old fuddyduddy like that rabbi.”
     “Fuddyduddy? Only fuddyduddies use words like fuddyduddy, Harvey.”
     “What I’m saying is the ‘kids these days’ routine is one thing, but it’s quite another thing to say that the Machine literally is a malevolent force. Fox News is running clips of The Exorcist.”
     “The day I pay any attention to what-”
     “I know,” Harvey interrupted, “but it’s gone a bit beyond the lunatic fringe now. We’ve had thousands of complaints. There are even protests.”
     “When the hell did all of this happen? It’s only been three days.”
     “You’ve been in the lab, Randall. You do tend to get a bit absorbed.”
     “True,” Randall conceded.
     “I’m even hearing grumblings from the grant agencies and insurance companies,” Harvey said, his tone becoming more serious.
     “What? What the hell does that have to do with anything?”
     “Let’s be honest, here. You’re already considered an insurance risk - and a bit of a loose cannon, might I add - since you’re one of about seven adults in this country who hasn’t used the Machine yet.”
     “So that’s what it is. Everyone else is so miserable about the quality of their impending demises that they want me to be miserable too.”
     “That very well may be, but if this thing gets even more out of hand and the money starts drying up...You might have to be miserable, too. You might have to use the Machine.”
     “That’ll be the fucking day.”

     The day came. Randall found himself in the Machine’s room, muttering to himself while rolling up his sleeve and glaring at whatever he could get his eyes on. “You don’t have to do that, sir,” Suresh, the Machine operator, told him.
     Randall ignored him.
     “And all those goddamn grant boards can go fuck themselves. They’ll come back begging to give me cash when I crack the entanglement problem.”
     Harvey just nodded, silently.
     “And those fucking insurance companies that are running our lives a lot more than this fucking Machine does. All those assholes on Fox are gonna crow that I’m going back on what I said, that I’m a fucking flip-flopper. I’m only doing this for the insurance. I want everybody to know that. Harvey, make sure everybody knows that.”
     “We know, Randall,” Harvey replied. “I’ll make sure everyone knows.”
     “My son needs that insurance. My fucking ex-wife sure as hell won’t be able to give it to him.” Randall pointed at the administrator angrily. It wasn’t Harvey’s fault, he knew, but he had to find somewhere to direct his fury. “Makes sure my son gets all of it. I don’t want a fucking penny to go to her.”
     “They don’t make pennies anymore, Randall.”
     “You know what I fucking mean!”
     “Don’t worry, Randall,” Harvey replied, attempting something close to a soothing tone. “It’s all taken care off. The paperwork’s done and the trust fund is already set up.”
     There was silence, before Randall let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “Okay, let’s get this over with.”
     Suresh wheeled the bulky black mass of the Machine closer and pointed to a small round opening. “Just stick your finger in there,” he stated and wiped down Randall’s index finger with an alcohol pad. There was a moment of hesitation and then Randall plunged his finger inside. He winced as the needle pricked him and yanked his finger away. The sooner he was far, far away from this goddamn machine, the better.
     All three men were silent as the Machine did its work. A green light appeared in the blackness, and a white card spit out of a slot on the side. Randall glanced at the other two men, and slowly reached for the card.
     “Oh, what the fuck is this?” he roared, resisting the overwhelming urge to rip the paper to shreds by handing it to Harvey. The other men looked at the small, crisp white card, which read in bold black lettering: THE CAT OR THE PIANO.
     “Is that a band name?” asked Suresh. Harvey caught himself before he laughed.
     “This doesn’t even make any fucking sense,” Randall raved, beginning to pace back and forth. “There must be some kind of malfunction. The Machine tells you what happens; it doesn’t give you a fucking choice. That’s the whole point of the damn thing! You get an answer. No one’s ever gotten a question before.” Before he had even finished, Suresh had the back of the Machine open and was already preparing a diagnostic test.
     After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, Harvey spoke. “It’s not a question.”
     “What?” Randall glanced up from the spot on his shoes he’d been studying intently, in an effort to not walk out the door immediately.
     “Look, there’s no question mark. So it’s not a question, it’s a statement.”
     “I doubt the Machine is a fucking stickler for grammar.”
     “Why not? We know that some of the time it issues results that are cryptic, even ironic. Results that are ambiguous enough to be interpreted incorrectly by the recipient– a message with a twist, you might say. Maybe you think it’s a question, but it’s really not. I think it’s a statement.”
     “A statement of what?”
     “I don’t know, maybe it’s identifying a particular cat?” Harvey proposed with a shrug.
     “A particular cat? Who the fuck would name their cat ‘Or the Piano’?”
     “Salvador Dalí?” the administrator suggested, fighting back a wry grin.
     Randall glared. “I’ll tell you who would name their cat ‘Or the Piano’. Fucking liberal arts majors, that’s who. In fact, I bet they’re behind this whole Machine thing. Who the hell else would relish ironic deaths except for people who were force fed a diet of ancient Greek drama? They’re just mad because they can’t get real jobs.”
     “And quantum physicist is a real job?”
     “Real fucking funny, Harvey. Now when Suresh is done hooking this thing up to electrodes, let’s try it again and see if we can get a sane result this time.”
     hey did. The result was the same.

     Randall didn’t visit downtown Batavia very often; there was little to see and even less that interested him. But grant money was still hard to get and he was making little progress in the lab, so he had taken to long walks to see if he could puzzle out things in his head. On one of these trips, about two years after his Machine reading, on a downtown sidewalk he walked past two delivery men pulling on a rope which led to a piano suspended in the air next to a second story window.
     Three thoughts went through Randall’s head in rapid succession. First was a burst of equations he hadn’t used in years, filling his head with torque and strain and vectors. Then, he thought that it was odd that they still delivered pianos this way, like you might see in an old Warner Brothers cartoon. With the third thought, his eyes went wide.
     He was no longer under the piano, but he instinctively turned the other direction and found himself faced with a fat orange cat strolling across the sidewalk as if it were his own little feline kingdom.
     Randall ran straight into the street, cackling both in fear and in pleasure at his own cleverness in rejecting the choice presented to him. There was a third option, one free from pondering the cryptic message on that little white card every time he saw a fucking Steinway or his neighbor’s little grey kitten. He’d be free from the goddamn question the Machine had given him. The Machine would be wrong.
     Randall didn’t feel what happened next, but he heard the screech of tires, the shattering of glass, and the sound of his own body hitting the pavement with a sickening thump. The last thing he saw was that orange cat staring at him from the sidewalk with what he swore was an unmistakable grin.
     You fucking bastard, he thought.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

This week in awesome: Cookie Monster, heroin, corn dogs, and soulless employers

Perhaps the most perfect mashup ever:

Pictures of politicians eating:

The last episode of This American Life featured Cole Lindbergh, perhaps the most enthusiastic amusement park games manager in the history of time. Lindbergh's preposterous enthusiasm is infectious, but you also emphasize with Lindbergh's dilemma about having a job you thoroughly enjoy and are amazingly good at, but that job offers no opportunities for life or career advancement and your employer is institutionally incapable of recognizing or rewarding your efforts and skills. If there was any sense at all, this guy would be a vice president or at least a regional training manager.

Also first heard on This American Life may be what is a perfect joke by comedian Kumail Nanjiani. It holds up on repeat viewings and I still marvel at the craftsmanship of it. Hopefully we'll see a lot more of this guy.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Remembering Robert Novak, Douchebag of Liberty

Robert Novak was a rumpled, absent-minded political reporter in the late 50s and early 60s, frequently seen forgetting to shave or tie his shoes or even sticking lit cigarettes in his pockets. He teamed up with button-downed reporter Rowland Evans to become the Laverne and Shirley of political commentators, running an inside baseball column and political report together from 1963 to Evans' death in 2001. So eagerly they printed leaks and fresh information that didn't turn out so well they were nicknamed "Evans and No Facts". Novak later became a frequent presence of dyspeptic misogyny in the early days of cable news, at one point even declaring that the sight of homeless people on television news ruined his Thanksgiving dinner. It's not for nothing that he was nicknamed "The Prince of Darkness".

Novak will likely be best remembered for revealing the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame in 2003. Members of the Bush administration leaked her identity to Novak in retaliation for her husband Joe Wilson publicly demolished the line pushed by the administration that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger. Despite the fact that this revelation outed Plame, her CIA cover organization, the other CIA operatives working for that organization, and all of their informants, no one was charged or convicted of this crime, excepting Scooter Libby's perjury conviction. Novak doubled down and insisted he'd done nothing wrong because "left-wing critics" were meanie pants to him. One persistent critic was Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, who awarded Novak the "Congressional Medal of Douchebaggery."

In 2008, Novak hit an 86 year old pedestrian with his black Corvette convertible. Despite the fact that the poor guy (who thankfully escaped with minor injuries) bounced off Novak's windshield, Novak claimed he never saw him. After a lifetime of reckless driving, speeding citations, douchebaggery, and not giving a shit about anyone, many concluded he was lying. But a few days later, Novak was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died a little over a year later, on August 18, 2009.

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Monday, August 8, 2011

Nevermore to the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum?

The New York Times reports that The Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum faces possible closure. The House has lost its $85,000 annual subsidy from the city of Baltimore and is limping forward by draining its reserve funds. It would be a loss, to be sure, but I'm wondering how much we'll really lose here.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a steadfast advocate for saving and archiving as much as we can, and for the government providing as much funds as are necessary to accomplish this. But I'm wondering if it's really feasible to save every house lived in by every prominent writer? Poe is most associated with Baltimore and died there, but at the end of his life he was living in New York and that house is preserved. His childhood home in Virginia is a successful museum and a Pennsylvania home is operated by the National Park Service.

It would be a loss to Baltimore's heritage, but let's look at precisely what's being lost. Some early key works like "Berenice" were likely written here, but none of his famous works. Do we really need to see where Poe may have written "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall"? And there are no artifacts of note in the House. Much of what is on display are reproductions alongside authentic artifacts of dubious significance such as a lock of his hair and a telescope that he may have used.

The problem is that the museum is not and likely can never be self-sustaining. It's in an out of the way location in the middle of a housing project. (The Times has a wonderful photo of a Poe reenactor in front of the house juxtaposed by some residents on the stoop in the background.) New exhibits won't cut it, you're not going to drive traffic into the middle of The Wire without a more serious and safer draw. Unless they can get an adjoining property (like that vacant lot you can see across the street on Google street view) for event space and parking, self-sufficiency will never be an option. And given that they can't even get funding to stay open much longer from donors or the city, I doubt that kind of investment, as smart as it may be, will be forthcoming. Baltimore has more pressing things to spend its money on these days, unfortunately.

One of the Poe society officers said that a hope is that "the city comes to its senses and realizes they’re not saving a lot of money, so they might as well keep running it." Even if the museum closes its doors, the house will still have to be preserved. Future renovations will cost a lot more in the future, and hopefully the city will be sensible enough to take appropriate steps to make sure the house remains intact. It might be cheaper just to keep the place open and let the volunteers do all the work of keeping it up.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Vince Foster and Travelgate - 18 Years Later and Nothing Has Changed

In his autobiography My Life, Bill Clinton wrote of his childhood friend Vince Foster:
And I used to play in the backyard with a boy whose yard adjoined mine. He lived with two beautiful sisters in a bigger, nicer house than ours. We used to sit on the grass for hours, throwing his knife in the ground and learning to make it stick. His name was Vince Foster. He was kind to me and never lorded it over me the way so many older boys did with younger ones. He grew up to be a tall, handsome, wise, good man. He became a great lawyer, a strong supporter early in my career, and Hillary's best friend at the Rose Law Firm. Our families socialized in Little Rock, mostly at his house, where his wife, Lisa, taught Chelsea to swim. He came to the White House with us, and was a voice of calm and reason in those crazy early months.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Obituaries: Gene Colan (1926-2011) and Peter Falk (1927-2011)

A pair of obituaries for June 23, 2011:

Gene Colan was one of the best artists of the heyday of Marvel Comics, known for his moody, fluid, expressive drawings. He worked on many titles, but he's best remembered for his work on Daredevil, Howard the Duck, and The Tomb of Dracula.

Peter Falk had a long career as an actor and is most beloved for his role as the rumpled idiosyncratic detective Columbo. The video below is from his role as the grandfather/narrator in The Princess Bride.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Weinergate and the unfortunate erection of Andrew Breitbart

So Anthony Weiner has a hobby.

Is this the first political sex scandal of the internet era? Perhaps it is the first virtual political sex scandal, where no sex was had and only pics were exchanged (a/s/l?) and even the participants are unsure of who each other is. (The most uncomfortable moment in what was already a ridiculously uncomfortable press conference was when Weiner admitted that he could not know for sure that the women he interacted with were of age.)

What a bizarre sideshow. The media asked their usual penetrating questions. Was he wearing boxers or briefs? (To be fair, this was crowd chit-chat prior to Weiner's remarks.) Are you a sex addict? (Someone please punch that guy.) Will you apologize to Andrew Breitbart? (Also punch this guy.) Were you fully erect? (Especially this guy.)

Weiner brought this on himself, but it's never fun to watch a man cry on live television, unless than man is Andrew Breitbart. We all have strange pleasures and needs, even popular witty Congressmen with beautiful wives, that we don't want to admit in public, and the internet allows us to indulge many of them. In the grey of the morning in front of that flickering screen, we've all likely done something we regret. As Amanda Marcotte points out, many of the people attacking Weiner, including that female reporter haranguing Weiner about the ages of his Twitter flirts, almost certainly have regrets of their own. Most are less public figures and most are more cautious about it, but only Echelon knows how many dark secrets of theirs are preserved in servers around the world.

This is still a disappointment. It's disappointing becuse we thought Weiner was better than this, morally, and less bereft of intelligence and common sense. It's a disappointment because such a vocal advocate for the progressive cause has been silenced. And make no mistake, that's what is going on here. Weiner brought this on himself, but that doesn't make this any less of a political attack, one which may have been specifically timed to distract from Justice Clarence Thomas' ethical issues, which Weiner has taken the lead in highlighting.

Andrew Sullivan writes "this is the result of raw culture war with no scruples or principles, designed purely to destroy." And that's what this is. The message here is that if you stick your neck out for progressive causes, they are going to chop your head off. You'll have stalkers on Twitter hounding you and your followers, waiting for a slip up they can use against you. You'll have ludicrous professional charlatans like Breitbart manipulate the story and then claim to be the victim. You'll have Fox News attack you all day and the "liberal" media will cheer them on, while largely ignoring the John Ensigns and the David Vitters of the other party.

The worst part about Weinergate is that this may legitimize Andrew Breitbart. I'm now convinced that Breitbart, not the cockroach, may be the only thing that survives the Armageddon. What should have happened is that the press conference should have ended with Weiner (or better yet, his wife) punching Breitbart in the mouth, but instead he grabbed the spotlight and the assembled reporters sprang to his defense, demanding an apology on his behalf. Somehow Breitbart has survived being exposed again and again as a manipulative liar and professional libel artist, and now he has the audacity - no, because he is completely made of slippery, amoral audacity - to claim victimhood and vindication because he was sort of correct about a story he manipulated into being. Now viciously attempting to ruin the life of an innocent Department of Agriculture employee, sponsoring the junior pseudo-pimp so he could pseudo-seduce a CNN reporter, and everything else he's ever done may be all wiped away and Breitbart may become a professional, respected journalist and pundit because someone sent him a picture of a Congressman's dick.

Friday, April 15, 2011

My (positive) ode to tax day. No, seriously.

It's annual tax day, which means it's also time for annual ritual cultural displays expressing angst and dismay. For example, on the way to work today I listened to the tax day theme show from Sound Opinions. Some of the songs were just about not having enough money in general, but there's quite a bit of musical rage directed at the tax collector. This is, of course, the most famous example:

Despite the protests in this country, we're relatively lightly taxed, all things considered. George Harrison's rage was directed at a much more onerous tax rate of 95% for the highest tax brackets in the UK at the time. Many of them fled the country seeking havens. While 95% seems completely unreasonable, even for the super rich, it did spur investment. Of course, the GOP claims that it's tax breaks for the rich that spur investment, though there is little evidence of that. There's plenty of evidence that the high UK tax rate spurred the rich to stick their money in every available venture. In George Harrison's case, it was the movies. Harrison's good taste and willingness to put his money down deserve the credit, but without that ridiculous tax rate, we might not have Time Bandits or Monty Python's Life of Brian.

However, a couple of movies aren't really an argument in favor of a particular tax program, or taxation in general. Judging from the songs I heard this morning, musicians seem to agree. Rage is easier to get across musically than wonkish arguments, so I understand why there aren't any pro-taxation songs. But what is the pro-taxation argument?

It occurred to me that I was driving on it. Tax money built the roads. Tax money built my employer. Tax money built the police headquarters and airport I drove past. Tax money keeps planes in the sky and cars on the road. Tax money built the Hoover Dam and preserved the Everglades and Yosemite. Tax money created the Internet. Tax money put men on the moon. Tax money defeated the Nazis.

You might say it took people to do those things. Yes, it did. It took courageous and clever people whom we rightfully celebrate, many of whom gave up their lives doing so. But it also took a government to spend the money, to coordinate the people and materiel. Only in some libertarian fantasy can we pass the hat around and all chip in our couch change to fight the Nazis. It takes a government to give soldiers guns and training and tanks and boats and planes to do the shooting with before those individual soldiers can do any shooting of Nazis. We like to imagine ourselves rugged individualists, but it takes banding together in groups and organizations to accomplish large, meaningful tasks. That's pretty much the definition of civilization. Those libertarian fantasists should try living in a hunter/gatherer society some time and see how that works out for them.

I'm not elevating government over the people who did these things, but it's worth pointing out that it did take an organized government to accomplish all of these things. In this culture - largely thanks to decades of anti-government drumbeating by conservatives - we're quick to criticize the negatives of government without acknowledging its accomplishments. It's why people can carry to a protest a sign reading "Keep Government out of Medicare" and honestly not know how stupid they are. It's also why people don't direct their anger at, say, giant corporations who pay absolutely no taxes while shipping jobs overseas. Deflection is the key word: Rich Fox News anchors and morning DJs are in those high tax brackets and want to insure their taxes are as low as possible. They're going to deflect people's anger somewhere else, like "big government".

Now, none of this means that government doesn't do bad things with our money or that you can't complain when it does. But the conservative "big government" drumbeat isn't about targeting particular spending. The anti-government crowd isn't complaining about money going to drone strikes or the Guantanamo prison; these people are the political heirs of the people who put anti-Vietnam War tax withholders in prison for tax evasion. This drumbeat is about targeting spending for anything other than conservative preferences– things usually referred to as "essential".

I don't know if I'd say I like tax day, but honestly I don't mind it so much. These ritual denunciations puzzle me. Shouldn't we be proud of the things we've accomplished as a nation and proud to contribute to those accomplishments instead of grumbling about it? I'm glad to contribute. I'm proud (and angry) that I contribute more than those tax cheats at GE.

This year I'm getting a small refund from my withheld taxes. I think I'll frame the check instead of cashing it. It's only one dollar, and one dollar out of trillions might not seem significant, but hey, it's still a dollar more than GE paid.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Scaife paper cracks the master's whip at the Carnegie Museum

I'm a bit late responding to this, but I don't have the time to blog daily. I'm part of the amateur left, not the professional left.

Last week the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published an editorial excoriating an exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art. An unsigned editorial means it is the opinion of the paper, and the opinion of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is likely the opinion of its owner, Richard Mellon Scaife.

Scaife was the Koch Brothers of the Clinton years, funding the notorious Arkansas Project targeting President Clinton and many other far-right initiatives. Many are convinced that the suicide of journalist Steve Kangas was a Scaife ordered murder. (I doubt this conspiracy theory - if you are going to kill someone, why leave him in your own bathroom?) When quizzed about funding right-wing causes by journalist Karen Rothmyer, Scaife notoriously replied "You fucking Communist cunt, get out of here." (That particular incident seems to have disappeared down the Wikipedia memory hole.)

The editorial is a complaint about Diver, a retrospective of the work of underappreciated artist Paul Thek. This New York Times review of the show at the Whitney Museum will give you a good overview of his work.

The editorial itself is largely an unremarkable piece of right-wing agitation with large helpings of snide commentary. An artwork is taken out of context and described disgustingly, another (pictured above) is taken as liberal and socialist propaganda, and there's couple of shots at the liberal elite mentioning biscotti and cappuccino. One banal editorial is nothing at all compared to the uproar surrounding the Smithsonian's Hide/Seek exhibition and the pulling of David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly. And judging by its Twitter feed, the Carnegie Museum isn't taking this attack lying down. Two days ago it even held a panel discussion and screening of A Fire in My Belly.

What's going on here isn't an attempt to destroy the exhibit or the museum. Scaife has enough money and enough media to probably make a good attempt at that, but what's happening here isn't so much an attack as a warning shot. The real message of the editorial is this:

Pittsburgh's supposedly pre-eminent gallery for all things art has forgotten who butters its bread.

It's money we're talking about here, or the prestige that money buys, and in Pittsburgh the money is really old. The show is in the Heinz Gallery of the Carnegie Museum and Scaife himself is heir to the Mellon fortune. Those three names are about half the money in Pennsylvania right there. And being old money, it demands respect and fealty. It doesn't care about dirty pictures, but it won't countenance an attack on its ideology, not even in the form of one painting by one artist in one show. If it doesn't get what it wants, it will take its money elsewhere.

This is a message, and the message is "respect your betters, or else". It's a call for self-censorship, and there's plenty of evidence that people in the art world are getting the message. Self-censorship is the most insidious type of censorship and many institutions are reluctant to put on shows that challenge anyone: their audience, their patrons, or the right-wing noise machine. It was a (figurative) crime to remove the Wojnarowicz video from Hide/Seek, but the hidden crime was the fact that many institutions shrank from the idea of hosting the challenging show. Hide/Seek curator Jonathan Katz points out:

It’s hard to say two thing at once, but I’m going to. I’m going to say that I could not disagree more with the stupidity of the removal of the video. At the same time, I’m also absolutely convinced that the Smithsonian has been heroic in breaking this blacklist. In fact, what I’m finding very troubling about some of the reaction to what happened is that it tends to demonize the Smithsonian to the delectation of the very right-wing fringe that inaugurated this conflict in the first place.

What I think we need to remember is that the Smithsonian is courageous and that other museums were not. I’m increasingly getting concerned that the activist response targeting the Smithsonian loses the bigger picture, which is that it’s been 21 years since Mapplethorpe and no one has done a damn thing in that time, that museums have been sitting on their hands and that this incident confirms the wisdom of so doing.

We need to be outraged about incidents of censorship like the one committed by the Smithsonian. But we also need to be outraged by incidents of censorship and demand the institutions charged with preserving and representing our cultural heritage do so fully and completely and don't leave out gays or progressives or unions or whatever displeases the Sciafes of the world. We should demand that they challenge us and fight these battles instead of heeding the crack of the master's whip and abandoning these fights before they even begin.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Covering the Beatles: Please Please Me (part 4)

Track eleven: "Do You Want to Know a Secret?"

Lennon was inspired by this song from Snow White which his mother sang to him as a child:

Here's an instrumental cover by Count Basie. Yes, that Count Basie. Apparently everybody has done a Beatles cover album.

Track twelve: "A Taste of Honey"

"A Taste of Honey" always seemed out of place in The Beatles' oeuvre, a bit of saccharine oldies bombast amongst the rocking 60s tunes. It's not that simple, of course, as The Beatles weren't simply influenced just by proto-rock stuff, but this tune does stick out. Case in point: the most famous version of this song isn't by the Fab Four, but an instrumental two years later by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. This is a hysterical parody of the song by Allan Sherman of "Camp Grenada" fame.

Track thirteen: "There's a Place"

This project is taking me in some odd places, but that's the magic of serendipity. One place is the blog Swedesplease, dedicated to Swedish indie music. (Yes, there's a blog about everything now.) There I found a mesmerizing cover by Ossian Ekenger of Gothenberg, about whom I otherwise know nothing, and the blog isn't particular forthcoming, other than this picture which looks like it belongs on a 1920s passport.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Covering the Beatles: Please Please Me (part 3)

Track seven: "Please Please Me"

The recording of this song was a turning point for The Beatles. George Martin was set to have them do another cover tune as their next single, but they turned up with an up tempo, rollicking version of this song, so Martin released this instead and it became their first #1 hit. So by way of contrast, here's a languid indie rock cover by Will Phalen.

Track eight: "Love Me Do"

Here's a bluesy cover by Dallas Hodge.

Track nine: "P.S. I Love You"

It was hard to find a cover of this song I liked. The problem is that this Paul McCartney tune shares its name with a great 1934 Johnny Mercer tune, which is why The Beatles' song was relegated to a B-side. Everyone has covered the Mercer tune: Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Mel Torme... But I couldn't find many Beatles covers and even resorted to listening to shitty covers by a bad Japanese girl group and an weird Slovakian singer. I finally found this one by Scottish singer Barbara Dickson from her 2006 Beatles cover album Nothing's Gonna Change My World. Dickson has been covering The Beatles for decades: she performed their music in the 1974 Willy Russell musical John, Paul, George, Ringo … and Bert. George Harrison loathed it:
I saw it up until the intermission and then — I saw it with my friend Derek Taylor, who's a writer who used to work for Warner Bros. and Apple — I said to him we either have to leave now or I'm gonna jump on that stage and throttle those people. It was awful stuff. All these idiots acting out people — it's like I say in "The Devil's Radio," talking about what they don't know. It's like a rumor. It's like those Beatles cartoons, and it was so inaccurate it was nauseating, having been one.
When Harrison left, he took with him permission to use his song "Here Comes the Sun", which the show replaced with "Good Day Sunshine".

Find more Barbara Dickson albums at Myspace Music

Track ten: "Baby It's You"

A tune by Burt Bacharach and friends, it was originally released as a single by The Shirelles and became one of two Shirelles covers on Please Please Me. It reached number 5 when later covered by white blues rock band Smith in 1969. This cover is by Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe.

Covering the Beatles: Please Please Me (part 2)

Track four: "Chains"

This song was originally released in 1962 as a single for The Cookies, the backup band for Little Eva of "Locomotion" fame. Can't find a version of this song that really works for me, even the one by The Beatles. Maybe no one has done it justice, or maybe it's just a slight song. Here's a version by The Everly Brothers. The sounds of actual chains are a bit much.

Track five: "Boys"

This was originally released by The Shirelles as the B-side of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", the first #1 hit for a girl group. Paul McCartney recalls covering the song live:

Any one of us could hold the audience. Ringo would do "Boys", which was a fan favourite with the crowd. And it was great — though if you think about it, here's us doing a song and it was really a girls' song. "I talk about boys now!" Or it was a gay song. But we never even listened. It's just a great song. I think that's one of the things about youth — you just don't give a shit. I love the innocence of those days.

Track six: "Ask Me Why"

And here's some random guy on the internet with a ukulele. Is it me, or does he look like Robert Patrick?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Covering the Beatles: Please Please Me

Track one: "I Saw Her Standing There"

In 1964, Motown guru Berry Gordy put together an album called A Bit of Liverpool featuring The Supremes covering British Invasion tunes. Critically regarded as a disappointment, it featured five Lennon/McCartney tunes and even two Motown songs covered by The Beatles. This Beatles cover, featuring Florence Ballard on lead vocals, was left on the cutting room floor, however, until a 2008 compilation album.

On tour in January 1963, The Beatles wrote this song for a planned country album by tour headliner Helen Shapiro called Helen In Nashville, but it was rejected. Also on the tour was singer Kenny Lynch, who recorded his own version, the first ever cover of a Beatles song. The Beatles, needing material for their debut alubm, recorded it themselves. Lynch's version was issued as a single the same day that Please Please Me was released, March 22, 1963.

Track three: "Anna (Go to Him)"

Soul singer Arthur Alexander deserves to be a lot less obscure than he is, and after you hear this you may agree. Penned and released by Alexander in late 1962, the song became a favorite of John Lennon's and The Beatles regularly covered it in their early shows.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Unpacking the crazy: Larry Klayman's Clinton Birther/Assassination Theory

There's right-wing stories that you should pay attention to because Fox News or chain emails or Brietbart will inject them into the mainstream. There's right-wing stories that you can safely ignore because they are so preposterously stupid as to be self-refuting. And then there's Larry Klayman.

Klayman is the founder of Judicial Watch, an organization of legal trolls which spent the 90s suing the Clinton Administration eighteen times and even, amusingly, Dick Cheney's notorious energy task force. So lawsuit happy was he that he sued Judicial Watch itself, ending up in a long legal battle with them after he left the organization. He's also columnist for that wretched internet hive of scum and villainy called World Net Daily.

Klayman's writings are almost certainly worth ignoring if one is looking originality or someone grappling with ideas of some weight, or any ideas at all really. But they can be taken a good representation of the wingnut zeitgeist, and if nothing else it's always an amusing intellectual exercise to unpack the crazy contained within one of his columns.

Case in point is this recent contribution to the wingnut gutters of the internet, where Klayman breathlessly informs his readers of the latest nefarious secrets and schemes of that femme fatale, Hillary Clinton. (Don't worry if you don't want to give WND any clicks or expose yourself to that kind of nuttery, I'll tell you everything you need to know here.) Amusingly, he even calls her a "femme fatale" in the piece, helpfully informing his slower and less literate readers (i.e., all of them) that it is a "French expression". For a dash of added classiness, he even seasons his article with some French language phrases, leading one to imagine a beret-wearing Klayman sitting in some Left Bank bar with a cigarette listlessly dangling from his mouth.

But before we get the lastest news, Klayman recycles a bunch of two-decade old conspiracy theories about Clinton. He hits all the notes, packing them into a couple of paragraphs: Vince Foster, John Huang, Bill Clinton's promiscuity, a masculine Hillary feminizing men, backhanded praise of her ruthlessness, the Clinton "death toll", etc. Then he moves on to Obama, "Barack Hussein Obama", of course, even as he only refers to the Secretary of State as "Hillary". The usual suspects have been rounded up: Jeremiah Wright, Louis Farrakhan, and Bill Ayers. Some new memes have been thrown in: Obama has been dithering on ESPN, supports the Muslim Brotherhood, won't act on Libya (soon to be, I'm sure, replaced Newt Gingrich-style by complaints about his actions in Libya) and Iran. He even works in a sales pitch for his book, the charmingly-titled Whores. "C'est la vie," Monsieur Klayman might sigh.

Finally, finally, Klayman saunters to the sensational revelation: Hillary's plot to run for president in 2012 by assassinating Obama. He reveals it not as a stunning new development, but mentions it as if you already knew, and to Klayman's readers, it's already a matter of faith. This isn't a surprise, as many of his geriatric readers spent the 90s devouring myths about the Clinton "body count", concern trolling over lists of "victims" headed by clinically depressed Vince Foster, and buying conspiracy videotapes hawked by Jerry Fallwell. So of course Hillary plans to kill Obama! Hillary's reputation as a murder of suicide and plane crash victims is so well established that Klayman writes "In 2011, it may be passé for Hillary to get rid of people by having them disappear." He doesn't explain that passé is a "French expression" or why Hillary didn't knock Obama off the first time she ran for president, or back in 2004 when he first burst onto the national stage and became a threat to her ambitions.

But if we paused to examine such logical flaws, we couldn't get to the next revelation: Hillary's embrace of Birtherism. Apparently she's on the trail of the fake birth certificates again, and tells us the whole Birther conspiracy theory isn't a result of wingnuts like him relentlessly attempting to de-legitimize the citizenship of an African-American, but Hillary's relentless ambition, an altar upon which all sins can be laid, apparently. Birtherism, not assassination, will be the weapon Hillary chooses from her arsenal to knock off Obama. Why not assassination, since the Clintons are apparently so effective and practiced at it? Why employ Bitherism now? Why not in 2008 or earlier? I guess that mythical long-form birth certificate is pretty illusive.

So what foundation of pseudofact is this house of conjecture built upon? Klayman claims that this revelation comes from "sources close to Hillary". Seriously? This may be the most far-fetched assertion in the piece. We are supposed to believe that Klayman, who is no Bob Woodward or Seymour Hersh, has cultivated sources in Hillary's camp, a group he build an entire career out of attacking and blaming for everything from the black plague to the cancellation of Firefly. Perhaps the lives of many Bothans were lost to bring Klayman this crucial information. Perhaps some disgruntled Clinton flunkie was forced into a gay marriage or to have an abortion thanks to Obama's imposition of Sharia law and has formed a heroic fifth column inside the administration.

We have no time to digest this world-shattering news before Klayman winds up his column. And you can't conclude a column of wingnut cliches without the de rigueur quoting of a bon mot from Saint Reagan, this time by way of Bachman Turner Overdrive: "You ain't seen nothing yet!"

Mot juste, Monsieur Klayman! Au revoir!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Boing Boing gets it wrong on Wikipedia deletions

Boing Boing today has an item about the deletion of a Wikipedia article on the seminal gaming website Old Man Murray. Like much outside coverage of Wikipedia deletions it is hysterical and inaccurate.

A lot of people don't seem to grok the idea that you can delete things from Wikipedia. People who can largely grasp the concept of "the encyclopedia anyone can edit" choke on the idea that those same people can delete things too. But it's not that simple; any single person can edit, but a single person can't delete an article, they can only suggest that an article be deleted. This is done on a page called Articles for Deletion. When the article is submitted to this page, a discussion begins, with references to Wikipedia policies and guidelines and reliable sources about the subject of the article. For some reason, the idea that, on an encyclopedia anyone can edit, anyone can suggest something be deleted makes them go absolutely apeshit. Someone who would never blame Wikipedia as an entity for something like an eight-grader changing George Washington's occupation to "ass pirate" reacts like a hysterical lunatic to a deletion discussion: OMG THOSE WIKIPEDIA BASTARDS WANT TO DESTROY MY FAVORITE THING AND ALL THAT IS GOOD IN THE UNIVERSE. Sometimes, a specialized blog or message board gets wind of the discussion and the fans descend like locusts on the discussion, armed with profanity and little else.

Look, anybody can edit. Anybody can suggest things be deleted. Some guy even proposed that the article on Jean-Luc Picard be deleted and he was laughed out of the virtual room. And yet, somehow, Wikipedia and the universe survived. Deal with it.

It's bad enough for random forums and blogs to perpetuate this, but it's unfortunate and bizarre for the tech-savvy Boing Boing do so as well. Rob Beschizza of Boing Boing takes it one step further into insanity and instead of blaming some anonymous mass of Wikipedians, he specifically name one person, some poor schmuck named Ben Schumin. By following Wikipedia's proper procedures for suggesting an article for deletion and having a bunch of other Wikipedians agree with him in a public discussion open to all, he has "quietly orchestrate[d]" the elimination of this article.

There's a bunch of problems with this piece, primarily the focus on Schumin. The title of the piece is "Did an old grudge get Old Man Murray deleted from Wikipedia?" But the question of the title quickly becomes a statement of fact - Beschizza calls it "a fact not disclosed in the nomination" by Schumin in the third sentence. What is this grudge? Beschizza quotes the blog Rock Paper Shotgun: "It is claimed in the discussion page on Wikipedia that Schumin has a long-running dispute with OMM." What is the grudge? What is the dispute? No one seems to know or is willing to spell it out, but anonymous comments on a website anyone can edit have made their way to a becoming statement of fact on one of the internet's more popular websites.

This is the height of irresponsibility, not just because of the dubious factual inaccuracy, but also because of the asymmetric warfare going on here. Beschizza has access to one of the most prominent platforms on the internet and when he presents allegations about Schumin as fact, Schumin has no similar platform with which to respond. (I suspect Beschizza would be willing to print or excerpt a response from Schumin, but Beschizza would be the gatekeeper.) Wikipedia may be one of the most used websites on Earth, but that doesn't grant any particular Wikipedian any piece of that traffic. It's not like Schumin can post a response on the front page of Wikipedia, right under the latest news from Libya. The best he can do is post a message on his user page, where few will likely read it. This bizarre mix of visibility and powerlessness makes individual Wikipedia editors particularly vulnerable to people with large platforms and/or persistent insanity. The website, to its discredit, does little to protect individual editors of the consequences of pissing someone off and there are plenty of examples of victimization at the hands of everyone from random internet trolls to a vengeful Hollywood producer. It's sad to see Boing Boing participate in that sort of thing by passing off anonymous allegations about some random editor as fact.

Those sorts of allegations are distressingly quite common on Wikipedia and are one of the least fun things about editing there. For a large percentage of trolls and combative editors, allegations of "bias" and "conflict of interest" are thrown out as an opening gambit. It is distressing to see so many evidence-free allegations thrown at Schumin in the deletion discussions and it was irresponsible of Wikipedia editors and administrators not to remove them. So does Schumin have a grudge against OMM? He may very well have one, but it doesn't matter. The proposed deletion should have been decided on its merits, and a bunch of Wikipedians did and decided they agreed with Schumin.

Beschizza writes "a useful resource is history" as a result of this discussion. You may agree because you know that OMM was a genuinely important website. But the discussion wasn't so much "Is OMM important?" but "Does this article demonstrate that OMM is important?" and "Does this article establish that using reliable sources that belong in an encyclopedia?" Many of the people attacking Schumin in the discussion merely asserted the importance of OMM, self-evident to them but not to someone who never heard of it. Others claimed that sources were provided by the dissenters, but most of those "sources" were passing mentions of OMM. At the time of its deletion, most of the references in the OMM article were to the website itself or message board posts. This clearly wasn't enough to support an encyclopedia article, which should not rely on message board posts, anonymous allegations, or self-interested assertions.

The article has been restored through the deletion review process and is now full of proper references. If half the energy devoted to attacking Wikipedia and demonizing Schumin had been devoted to improving the article, it never would have been deleted in the first place. Deleting the article was the wrong decision in the long run, but this mistake (one easily corrected through deletion review) isn't an excuse for the opprobrium directed at the website and largely defenseless individual editors. Based on the evidence available at the time, it was the right decision.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Mark Kirk - so much for one of the few adults left in the GOP

The blogosphere is abuzz with a recent pronouncement by Senator Mark Kirk (R-Asshat), the holder of Barack Obama's old seat. Kirk blamed his recent flip-flop on climate change on... the personal life of Al Gore.
The consensus behind the climate change bill collapsed and then further deteriorated with the personal and political collapse of Vice President Gore.
TPM puts it succinctly:
He's probably referring to this: in 2009, a massage therapist in Oregon went to the police and accused Al Gore of sexually assaulting her three years previously. Gore ultimately wasn't prosecuted. Soon thereafter, he and his wife divorced separated. Still it's hard to figure how whatever happened that night in 2006 has any bearing on the greenhouse effect.
That last sentence should be sufficient to prevent this from being an actual reason for any sane adult, much less a sitting US Senator. But we don't live in sane times, thanks to the GOP, we live in a time where a large group of lunatics are taken seriously and the rest of us are "shrill" if we point out that not only is the emperor not wearing clothes, he needs to be wearing a straightjacket.

I would expect this sort of pronouncement from the lunatic caucus of the GOP, like Mike Pence or Jim Inhofe or Tom Coburn, but this is coming from Mark Kirk, wildly hailed as a leading member of the sanity caucus of the Republican Party, such as it is. To quote the great political philosopher Oscar Martinez, "The coalition for reason is extremely weak."

It's a sign of these times that a statement like Kirk's is not immediately self-refuting, that you must point out that the validity of a scientific theory does not depend on the personal life of its most prominent public advocate, one who played no role in its discovery or formulation. But this is an old game with the right-wing, attacking the messenger and ignoring the message, tagging their enemies with a label like "liberal" or "socialist" instead of engaging with their statements and ideas. Their well-trained followers immediately discount anything said by those people labeled. You could also point out that Kirk, recently divorced amid rumors of homosexuality, shouldn't be discounting someone else because of his separation from his wife. But we learned long ago there are different rules for GOP behavior when a man who ripped apart someone else's marriage at age 41 and chalks it up to a "youthful indiscretion" impeaches another man for getting a blow-job. And today, of course, Congress is full of GOP members who frequent hookers and bribe mistresses who are gleefully voted into office by members of the "religious" right.

This isn't the first time that Kirk has flip-flopped on climate change. Once hailed as a moderate on the issue, he got heat from the teabaggers about it. In 2009, he told a crowd:
Briefly about cap and trade: I voted for it because it was in the narrow interests of my Congressional district. But as your representative, representing the entire state of Illinois, I will vote No on that bill.
What exactly is he saying here? Is he claiming that the residents of the 10th district of Illinois, whom he represented for nearly a decade, would be especially affected by climate change? Perhaps they would be inundated by floodwaters from a rising Lake Michigan. But now that he represents the whole state? Fuck the 10th, let 'em drown.

This sort of behavior is glossed over as Kirk is repeatedly praised as a moderate, intellectual force in the GOP. A representative example is this David Brooks encomium from October 2010, which starts in full tongue bath mode:
Mark Kirk has had a brilliant career. He graduated from Cornell, obtained a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and a law degree from Georgetown. He worked at the State Department, the World Bank and the law firm of Baker & McKenzie before becoming counsel to the House committee on foreign affairs.
Bobo goes on to praise Kirk's naval career and his intellectual gifts and concludes that this is the sort of man that we need in politics, the great white centrist hope that the Village salivates over. He glosses over Kirk's history of lying about his teaching experience and his military career and is butthurt that Kirk's Democratic opponent, Alexi Giannoulias, had the audacity to make an issue out of Kirk's mendacity. He ignores that Kirk was disciplined twice by the military for violating rules regarding political activity on the job and lied about that too. He also doesn't mention that this great centrist was campaigning for the endorsement of Queen Wingnut Sarah Palin.

Brooks is obviously most enamored of Kirk's intellect:
He is interesting to interview because he still acts like an intelligence officer in search of data. Everybody talks about the deficits, but Kirk went into the bowels of the Treasury Department to interview the civil servants who actually do the borrowing to understand how a fiscal crisis might start. When the stimulus bill was released, Kirk pulled an all-nighter to read it and emerged as an early critic of the way it was structured.
On the issue of climate change, does Bobo think that Kirk is still acting "like an intelligence officer in search of data"? Did Kirk dive into the countless scientific papers and data substantiating climate change? Who are the scientists he interviewed? Here, instead, the great intellect is insulting our intelligence, putting forth explanations for his shifting positions that explain nothing, preposterous explanations that not even a teabagger would find credible. Does he think anyone will buy this? It doesn't matter, as long as he gets enough votes to squeak by another 48-46 victory, and as long as Bobo still loves him.

Kirk isn't alone, of course. Paul Ryan is being hailed as some kind of economic wizard, Eric Cantor is called a policy wonk, Rand Paul has become a brave intellectual contrarian, and all of these labels are applied with a straight face by the Bobos of the Village. Of course, they offer little more in the way of serious policy contributions than the Mike Pences and Jim Inhofes, but since they have more mainstream accents, are more handsome and vaguely bookish-seeming, and say slightly fewer obviously crazy things, they have been cast in the role of moderates in the black comedy that is our current political discourse. Until we can effectively attack the fake personas they've managed to create, these faux-moderates will continue to drag our discourse rightward and our country downward.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Creationism and Google Scholar - and why it matters

There's a petition currently going around the intertubes directed at Google which reads:
We, the undersigned, call for Google Scholar to remove the works of Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International, and the Institute for Creation Research from the Google Scholar search engine because they do not produce scholarly work.
Those three organizations are the leading groups who use the Internet to spread creationism around the world. Specifically, they spread an especially literal interpretation of the Bible and a particularly anti-scientific brand of creationism, Young Earth creationism, which goes beyond quibbling with Darwin and attacks everything we know about biology, geology, astronomy, history, archeology, and a dozen other disciplines by insisting the Earth is only a few thousand years old. In essence, they are using 21st technology to spread 16th century doctrines.

Answers in Genesis in particular you may have heard of, as they are responsible for the notorious atheism=murder billboard in Texas and the Ark Encounter boondoggle in Kentucky. The Institute for Creation research was the outfit whose plan to offer creationist-oriented master's degrees in science education was nixed by Texas.

So why are they showing up in Google Scholar? The unofficial word is that Google doesn't index scholarly sources, it just looks around the Internet for things that look scholarly. Creationists have decades of experience gussying up their doctrines in scientific trappings, so this kind of thing is old hat to them. So, given how Google Scholar works, this was inevitable.

But wouldn't removing these results from Google Scholar be censorship? No. No one is saying these materials should not be accessible at all. Removing them from Google proper or other search engines would be censorship. Removing them from a group of resources advertised as scholarly is truth in advertising.

But who gets to decide what is scholarly? Shouldn't people be allowed to decide for themselves? If this is true, what is the point of differentiating between Google and Google Scholar? What is the point of having a separate search engine dedicated solely to scholarly work if it's just going to give you all the same crap you find in a regular internet search?

Scholarly isn't just a positive adjective. It refers to a set of qualities expected from such work by students, teachers, researchers, and, well, scholars: adherence to the scientific method, respect for the standards of a field of inquiry, peer review, etc. But why does the scholarly community get to decide what is scholarly? Despite the myth (which occasionally turns out to be true, admittedly) of a bold loner who challenges consensus by building a perpetual motion machine or a car that runs on water in his garage, the fact is that this self-policing community insures that quality work adhering to a set of standards is produced, and is largely successful at this. Creationism's decades of attempts to simultaneous enter this community, defy and topple it, and mimic it with a shadow faux-scholarly apparatus show not that they are being unfairly barred from the party, but that they're the drunks who should be kept outside lest they pee on all the furniture and steal the silverware.

Shouldn't people learn to distinguish between genuine scholarly work and the fake stuff? If they do, then we can stuff whatever junk we want into Google Scholar and it won't matter. Ideally, yes, people should learn to do this, but the fact is that they don't. And is Google Scholar really the proper vehicle for people to learn how to do this? It's a resource that people go to expecting to find scholarly sources. The more non-scholarly stuff you add to it, the less useful it becomes in finding what it is advertised to find. Even worse, the danger is that students and others untutored in distinguishing the gold from the straw would be misled into thinking that these creationism resources are genuine - exactly the goal of creationists. You should be wary of what you find on the internet, but you shouldn't have to be a scientist to be able to find an actual scholarly paper in a resource designed to find scholarly materials. Isn't the whole point of Google Scholar to open up scholarly resources to non-experts who don't have access to expert databases and journals? So why should you have to become an expert just to use it competently?

Google Scholar is an amazing resource in a number of ways. In addition to opening up these resources to the world, it combines multiple types of materials into a single search: books, journal articles, web pages. This usefulness is hindered by the fact that it fails in many basic ways as a scholarly database. Unlike most scholarly databases, it doesn't provide a list of what sources it is indexing and it doesn't provide an option to limit your source to peer-reviewed works or any other way to separate the dubious from the reputable. Often when you do find a genuine peer reviewed article, it is a link to the Jstor database. Potentially useful, but you have to log into Jstor through a library or school, so you might as well have used one of their databases in the first place. If you searched a real scholarly database for, say, creationism, you might find articles by scholars debunking creationist pseudoscience or examining creationism as a sociological phenomenon. If you search Google Scholar for creationism, the first hit is the book Scientific Creationism by Henry Morris, founder of the Institute for Creation Research. Google also provides its cover, which makes it look like one of those ancient astronaut books so popular in the 70s, and content-wise it isn't so far removed from them.

Why does any of this matter? Because science, education, and truth matter. Because if we allow creationist pseudoscience to include itself among actual scholarly works, then those things are eroded. We can't simply wave this issue away by saying that people will be able to tell the difference when they use Google Scholar. A recent report about evolution in science classrooms shows that 72% of students are not properly exposed to the workings of evolution in school. So how are these people going to be able to sort through scholarly works picking out the ones that represent science they were never taught? Creationists have yet to win a court victory allowing them to teach their doctrines as science, but 13% of teachers go ahead and do it anyway. About 60% of science teachers muddle their way through teaching a watered-down version to avoid "controversy". To be fair, if they wanted to wade into controversies and fight religious nuts, they'd become scrappy bloggers instead of science teachers. Their responsibility is to actually teach this science, of course, and they are letting their students down by not doing so. But Google legitimizing creationist pseudoscience on the Internet isn't exactly going to embolden these teachers and is another in an endless series of strikes against getting this material to students. As long as the culture in the US legitimizes creationism - the media presenting "both sides" and framing science and nonsense as two equal opposing sides of an issue, for example - then science teachers will never be emboldened to actually teach science.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Goodbye to another accidental hero

I heard the news today, oh boy.

I guess there isn't any point in writing about anything else tonight.

From the outside it looks like liberals deify media figures they admire. There may be some of that going on, but what I actually think is going on is that these figures become symbolic of all the aspirations and frustrations that liberals have.

If you are a conservative, you can flip the dial and there's something for everyone. Want a faux-blue collar "independent"? Bill O'Reilly! Want a tearful conspiracy theorist? Glenn Beck! Want a mouth-breathing lunatic? Michael Savage! Want a namecalling pseudo-intellectual? Mark Levin! I'm not sure what Sean Hannity is, but you've got him too. But liberals don't make it into the mainstream through the normal channels. They become milquetoast moderate centrists parroting Village cliches or they become strident, fire-breathing conservatives.

Liberals aren't invited to these parties, so they have to break into the mainstream in other ways. Al Franken was, of course, a comedian. Paul Krugman was hired by the New York Times to write about economic matters and never would have been hired if they'd known he'd be so "shrill". Rachel Maddow was an academic who stumbled into broadcasting by winning a local radio station contest. And Keith Olbermann was a sportscaster who was hired to do one of those lame snarky (and not particularly partisan or strident) pseudo-news shows that were so popular in the early 2000s. Since they don't come up through the normal channels and aren't bred by established interests, these accidental heroes recieve an outsized share of liberal attention and admiration. Even if you don't particularly like one of them (personally, I barely ever watched Olbermann), they were still important, if only because they were so few in number.

Lazy thinkers and partisans claim that MSNBC is the "liberal" alternative to Fox because some of these accidental heroes appear there, another example of the stupid false equivalencies that poison our political discourse. A few prominent media personalities does not make a channel liberal, especially one that promotes a three-hour daily morning show hosted by a former Republican Congressman. A few prominent media personalities are not the equivalent of an entire network of conservatives unified around an agenda issued via a daily memo to its employees by a corporation that donates millions to the GOP. A few prominent media personalities who criticize both left and right are not the equivalent of the coordinated attack on liberals by an entire network.

The evidence that MSNBC is far from liberal is abundant, starting with the firing of Phil Donahue in 2003. He hosted the channel's highest rated show, but he was a liberal and a critic of the war, so he had to go. This isn't a conspiracy theory, there's a memo that proves it, stating that they worried that Donahue would provide "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity".

Then there's Ashleigh Banfield, groomed by MSNBC as some kind of glasses-wearing Action Barbie and hurried into every picturesque sand dune in the war zone they could find. That is, until she made a speech criticizing Fox News and she was taken to the woodshed. She disappeared from the air and even took away her desk in the office.

And now Keith Olbermann, who suddenly disappears from MSNBC right after the FCC approves the NBC/Comcast merger.

I'm baffled by those people who assert, in the face of all evidence, that the media in general and MSNBC is liberal. It's a great talking point and will continue to be repeated by those who parrot talking points and believed by those who believe talking points. And if you aren't exposed to a wide range of media, perhaps you actually believe that Alan Colmes is truly representative of the far left. But if you are a progressive, then it's a sad day. Not because of Keith Olbermann in particular, but because there's one less strident voice in the mainstream media representing something left of Alan Colmes.

Things are getting better in some respects. There's the internet and the blogosphere, more access to information so we can more easily get the real facts and debunk right-wing lies. But in other respects it's just as hard as it's ever been. You have to seek out those sources, and if you are one of those people who don't or can't, you're left in the clutches of Fox News, under-informed and victim to the agenda of Fox and corporate America. The fewer accidental heroes like Keith Olbermanns we have in the media, the more likely this is to happen.

I don't really have any great conclusion I've reached here. As the Clash would say, it's just another story. The same old story it's always been.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Student trolls university, nobody cares

The New York Times reports that this Friday a student named Nic Ramos paid his tuition at the University of Colorado, Boulder in dollar bills: "all $14,309.51 of it — using dollar bills, a 50-cent piece and a penny."

Ramos did this, he said, because "I wanted to give the school a different way to look at tuition." But I doubt that anyone in the administration is going to give Ramos' stunt a second thought once the inconvenience and press attention have disappeared.

The Times rightfully made the comparison to last month's "violent protests" in the streets of the UK following tuition increases there. Here, they point out, such things are greeted with "shrugs". Is Ramos' protest going to make anyone look at the issue in "a different way"? How? Is Ramos voting for office holders who will support higher education and actively working to get others to do so? If he is, then he has my thanks, support, and apologies, but I doubt it. If not, then he's merely doing what so many apathetic people in the US do, lashing out at the nearest "authority figure" in an empty gesture that doesn't even merit the label "symbolic" given to it by the Times.

If Ramos had given this matter some thought, perhaps he would have realized that his protest wouldn't reach any actual authority figures. He has merely inconvenienced a group of public employees during their job's busiest and most difficult time. To be sure, having been a university and college employee in a number of different jobs, I encountered plenty of people who needed to be reminded that their purpose was to assist students, not themselves, but I also encountered many others who needed no such reminder because they were dedicated to that task. Ramos' immature protest makes no distinction between the two.

This sort of attitude has been successfully exploited by politicians and pundits who have actual power to influence decisions about higher education that directly affect Ramos' tuition rates. Lots of people have a bad experience, either from a genuinely bad employee or because they are just angry they didn't get their way, with a public employee, a teacher or somebody at the DMV or the IRS. Those politicians and pundits have successfully made those public employees the target of public anger, shifting the blame for all their budget cuts and bad decisions onto people who are just as much victims of those decisions as the general public. They're members of the general public too. Their children go to the same schools, they get their licenses at the same DMV. It's those politicians and pundits whose kids are in private school, who have aids to run their errands at the DMV for them, who drive away from the blame in their limos while the public lashes out at itself.