Friday, November 27, 2015

Happy Black Friday

I got up at four in the morning just to get a drop on all of the other Black Friday bloggers.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

"As God as my witness..." is my second favorite Thanksgiving episode line [Repost]

If you watch this and you could swear you remember Johnny and Mr. Carlson discussing Pink Floyd, you're not imagining things. Hulu uses the DVD edit which cuts out almost all of the copyrighted music. .

As for my favorite line, it comes from the Buffy episode "Pangs" and it requires a bit of a set up (which is a pain because it makes it next to impossible to work into a conversation).

Buffy's luckless friend Xander had accidentally violated a native American grave yard and, in addition to freeing a vengeful spirit, was been cursed with all of the diseases Europeans brought to the Americas.

Spike: I just can't take all this mamby-pamby boo-hooing about the bloody Indians.
Willow: Uh, the preferred term is...
Spike: You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. It's what Caesar did, and he's not goin' around saying, "I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it." The history of the world is not people making friends. You had better weapons, and you massacred them. End of story.
Buffy: Well, I think the Spaniards actually did a lot of - Not that I don't like Spaniards.
Spike: Listen to you. How you gonna fight anyone with that attitude?
Willow: We don't wanna fight anyone.
Buffy: I just wanna have Thanksgiving.
Spike: Heh heh. Yeah... Good luck.
Willow: Well, if we could talk to him...
Spike: You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It's kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick.
Xander: Maybe it's the syphilis talking, but, some of that made sense.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Breaking news: New York Times spots naked emperor at GOP royal court

[In case you missed the naked emperor thread up until now, click here, here and here.]

As mentioned before, the establishment press, as always best represented by the New York Times, is on the horns of a dilemma. The thought of Donald Trump getting the Republican nomination for president is unthinkable for any number of reasons. Unfortunately however, virtually all of Trump's abuses and his most offensive tactics were made possible by years of declining journalistic standards at the very same institutions now decrying him. As a result, they cannot effectively criticize Trump without acknowledging their own role in his creation.

We need mea culpas and instead we get exercises in self-justification and selective memory like this recent NYT op-ed:
Mr. Trump relies on social media to spread his views. This is convenient because there’s no need to respond to questions about his fabrications. That makes it imperative that other forms of media challenge him.
I actually laughed out loud when I read that one. The asking of challenging questions has long been the exception, almost entirely reserved for safe targets. For a variety of reasons, the original three establishment GOP candidates were able to say nearly anything without danger of follow-up. Bush's 4%. Rubio's vanishing refundable tax credit. Walker's numerous scandals.

It wasn't just this paragraph. Throughout the entire piece, the rest of the GOP goes unmentioned other than one brief generic reference to the "Republican field." Someone unfamiliar with the campaign might come away with the impression that Trump is the only Republican candidate spreading debunked lies, using alarmist rhetoric, and playing on the Islamophobia of the base.

The editorial board of the NYT must be aware that Rubio (the wonky but cute one) is talking about civilizational struggles and comparing Muslims to Nazis. Kasich is "proposing a new federal agency to spread Judeo-Christian values throughout the world as a way to combat the Islamic State." Bush is for accepting refugees along as they're mainly Christian. Cruz is... oh, hell, do I even need to go there?

Institutions like the New York Times are still looking for ways to be selective in their condemnation of bigotry and dishonesty, avoiding examples that highlight their own complicity. This makes their arguments ineffective (not to mention maddeningly smug).

[typo fixed]

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Bateman on the Turkey/Russia standoff

Like I said before, if you want an informed opinion...

At least Krauthammer's position on Eastasia remains consistent

We've already started a thread on the conservative media establishment actually being primarily partisan rather than ideologically conservative, resulting in, among other things, sharp turns on various issues when partisan interests shift. I've also been meaning to start a thread on the effects of feeding your party core a steady stream, not just of lies but of mutually contradictory misinformation. I'd argue that, to understand the Tea Party, you have to consider the tension and pent-up anger caused by all the resulting cognitive dissonance.

When I finally get around to making that argument, I need to remember to mention this sharp and funny piece by Jonathan Chait even though we aren't in complete agreement. What he puts down to nationalism, I see as a cynical attempt to manipulate the base. I strongly doubt that Charles Krauthammer and company "fervently believe" much of anything they say on Fox News.
Extreme nationalism, by its nature, requires its adherents to form judgments about the nature of foreign countries that are clear-cut, but also wildly inconsistent over time, as the interests and alliances of one’s own country inevitably mutate. The current state of right-wing thought has gone beyond the natural sympathy one might feel toward the people of France in the wake of the barbaric murders in Paris toward a new line best expressed by Charles Krauthammer, the leading party theorist. “If the other goal of the Paris massacre was to frighten France out of the air campaign in Syria — the way Spain withdrew from the Iraq war after the terrorist attack on its trains in 2004 — they picked the wrong country,” writes Krauthammer. “France is a serious post-colonial power, as demonstrated in Ivory Coast, the Central African Republic and Mali, which France saved from an Islamist takeover in 2013.” Those French colors don’t run.

Conservatives who now fervently believe they have always been the strongest of allies with France may need to expunge from their memory certain unpleasant events of the past. In the run-up to the Iraq War, nationalist fervor expressed itself in no small measure through intense hatred of that very same country, which represented everything they despised: generous social-welfare provisions, (alleged) cowardice, an attachment to diplomacy and international institutions. House Republicans officially changed the name of their cafeteria’s French fries to “freedom fries.” France was the heart of what Don Rumsfeld derisively called “Old Europe” and the subject of a 2004 book entitled Our Oldest Enemy, authored by a senior editor at National Review. Its essential qualities were treason and cowardice, its outsize role in world affairs a tragic relic.

The highbrow version of this theory was elucidated by Krauthammer. “France pretends to great-power status but hasn't had it in 50 years. It was given its permanent seat on the Security Council to preserve the fiction that heroic France was part of the great anti-Nazi alliance rather than a country that surrendered and collaborated,” he wrote in 2003. “Why in God's name would we want to re-empower the French in deciding the post-war settlement?” he asked. It sought to form “a French-led coalition of nations challenging the hegemony of American power and the legitimacy of American dominance,” a treacherous scheme Krauthammer traced back to Charles de Gaulle. Now France is a “serious post-colonial power,” its decades of anti-American scheming forgiven and forgotten.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Little Nemo Meets Lieutenant Kijé -- Having fun with Kdenlive

Back in the late 90s, I picked up some extra money producing a set of videotapes to accompany a college algebra textbook. They were the most God awful things you ever saw, but the publisher didn't care as long as they had some kind of media to accompany their books and the check was large enough to pay off  the last 5K on my car.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, if you wanted to make a video, unless you had a tremendous amount of money and cutting-edge equipment, you had to do it linearly. Imagine three large, professional grade VCRs stacked on top of each other, two for the source and one for the recording. Next to that would be a large pile of tapes. For every shot you needed, you would have to dig through that pile, fast forward to the part you wanted, hit the preview button, make sure you had what you expected, then hit record.

And repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

That record button, by the way, represented a real commitment. This was linear editing. If you decided later to make a change at the beginning of the tape, you pretty much had to scrap all the work that came afterwards.

Now jump forward about a dozen years. You get a decent desktop computer for less than $300, spend another hundred on video editing software (or put a Linux based operating system on it and download an open source editor). You are now looking at perhaps a couple of orders of magnitude improvement in speed, cost, training and functionality. Shift your time frame a bit and you see the same jump across virtually all media.

Every now and then I do some video editing on my old computer which is currently running Windows/Kubuntu. I might put together some footage for a musician friend or just play around for my own amusement. I don't really know what I'm doing but the software I'm using -- Kdenlive (KDE Non-Linear Video Editor) -- is remarkably intuitive, so even after a year or so of inactivity, it takes very little time to get back up to speed.

As for the video above, I was looking through an online collection of  Winsor McCay's still stunning Turn-of-the-Century Nemo pages. As I was studying a couple of the winter-themed cartoons, Prokofiev's troika kept running through my head. I downloaded a public domain recording from the Internet Archive, did a rough storyboard then just started trying things.

Even among the free-software options, Kdenlive is probably not the best tool for making one of these pan and zoom videos, but it's more than adequate and it replaces what would have been hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment twenty years ago.
I'm reasonably happy with the results, but that's not why I'm posting this.  The important point here is that what would have been a big, expensive project requiring trained specialists less than twenty years ago is now an afternoon project for a complete amateur using technology that pretty much everyone has or has access to.

We are living in what appears to be the second great media revolution. The first occurred around the turn of the last century when we actually learned how to record video and sound and how to transmit the latter (and made real strides toward transmitting the former). This is the lesser of the two revolutions, but not by that much. In terms of genuinely new functionality, it is almost impossible to beat that first surge, but in terms of cost, speed, portability and ease-of-use, we aren't doing bad at all.

Friday, November 20, 2015

This is not a post

Specifically this is not a post about Gerard Alexander's New York Times op-ed “Jon Stewart, Patron Saint of Liberal Smugness.”  Andrew Gelman just did a post on Alexander's piece over at the Monkey Cage, which is probably more attention than it deserves. For me to write another post, would require a careful rereading of the original op-ed to pick apart the rhetorical flaws and to select the most representative quotes. That's a lot of miles in the middle seat of the clown car (particularly when you aren't being paid for the trip).

So this is not a post. Instead, this is something of an unsolicited postscript to Gelman's post, especially this:

A characteristic feature of polarization seems to be the impression that one’s own side is reasonable and that all the polarizing comes from the other side of the political aisle.
I came across an amusing example of this today, ironically from a political scientist, Gerard Alexander, who, in an op-ed entitled, “Jon Stewart, Patron Saint of Liberal Smugness,” writes:
Many liberals, but not conservatives, believe there is an important asymmetry in American politics. These liberals believe that people on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum are fundamentally different.
This is just too perfect. It’s a beautiful paradox. If Alexander is right, then there is an important asymmetry in American politics, which is the thing that he’s saying conservatives don’t believe! If he’s wrong, then there is no asymmetry, which is what he’s saying conservatives believe in the first place. It’s like something out of Lewis Carroll.

And a bit later:

Also this, from Alexander:
My strongest memory of Mr. Stewart, like that of many other conservatives, is probably going to be his 2010 interview with the Berkeley law professor John Yoo. Mr. Yoo had served in Mr. Bush’s Justice Department and had drafted memos laying out what techniques could and couldn’t be used to interrogate Al Qaeda detainees. Mr. Stewart seemed to go into the interview expecting a menacing Clint Eastwood type, who was fully prepared to zap the genitals of some terrorist if that’s what it took to protect America’s women and children.
Mr. Stewart was caught unaware by the quiet, reasonable Mr. Yoo, who explained that he had been asked to determine what legally constituted torture so the government could safely stay on this side of the line. The issue, in other words, wasn’t whether torture was justified but what constituted it and what didn’t.
First off, let me say that this is a horrible thing to say about Clint Eastwood, who was never involved in this:
On December 1, 2005, Yoo appeared in a debate in Chicago with Doug Cassel, a law professor from the University of Notre Dame. During the debate, Cassel asked Yoo,
‘If the President deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, there is no law that can stop him?’, to which Yoo replied ‘No treaty.’ Cassel followed up with ‘Also no law by Congress — that is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo’, to which Yoo replied ‘I think it depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that.’

A while back we opened up a thread on the distinction between ideological and partisan ("Let's see how many people I can piss off with this one: Fox News is not all that conservative"). This is a particularly telling example, a self identified conservative upset because a liberal media figure made a fundamentally conservative argument that happened to be at odds with the Republican partisan objectives of the moment.

Obviously there is room for disagreement here, but if we take a libertarian perspective (and libertarianism has largely become the most intellectually respected school of conservative thought) there is simply no way to defend the proposition that the government can do anything it chooses and violate any and every personal liberty as long as it is protecting the common good.

You would have to feel you had a pretty good case to call someone the "Patron Saint of Liberal Smugness" in the headline of an NYT op-ed, especially if you have some kind of reputation to protect, but the only substantive example Alexander gives is of Stewart not being all that smug to someone who's not being at all conservative. 

The weird thing about this is that Stewart is openly liberal and is often brutally critical of people arguing genuinely conservative positions. I'm not saying that Alexander was right, but he could have at least made a case had he used appropriate examples.The fact that he didn't, and, more pointedly, that he so completely mixed up concepts like ideology and partisanship is another indicator of just how confused the political dialogue has gotten.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Perceived value -- Vegas style

 Mark Evanier, who used to be a serious blackjack player, shares an interesting anecdote about casino economics.
In Las Vegas casinos, they have these things called "comps" which are not unlike the parting gifts you get just for showing up on a game show. If you gamble long enough, you can usually ask a hotel employee for a freebie: A free meal, a free show, a free t-shirt. If they get to know you as a frequent player/loser, you might be able to achieve an "RFB" comp, the "RFB" standing for "Room-food-beverage."

Let me explain how comps are dispensed. The folks who deal Blackjack (or run the crap games or spin the roulette wheels) work at groups of tables — usually four-to-six — and one low-level exec of the casino keeps an eye on the gaming at those tables and makes whatever decisions have to be made. Dealers never make decisions of any kind about anything.

In most hotels, the execs are officially called Casino Hosts but no one calls them that. They're usually called "Pit Bosses," hearkening back to the days when they were Pit Bosses. The difference between a Casino Host and a Pit Boss is basically the same as the difference between a sanitary maintenance engineer and a janitor.

One of the many responsibilities of a Casino Host is to keep an eye on who's losing and who's winning and to award comps to guests who are giving the hotel a lot of "action." If they start offering you "RFB" comps, it's because they figure to make a lot of money off you if you gamble in their establishment. They are usually not wrong.

Actually, comps create a strange situation in the fancier Vegas hotel restaurants, at least for those who are dining there and intending to pay. At any given time, most of those eating there are on comps. This means that the eatery has no incentive to price its meals fairly. There is, in fact, every reason to overprice. The higher the listed price of a comped meal, the bigger a "gift" it seems.

There's a story that has made the rounds of the gaming industry: One evening, following a rousing bout of losing at the Hacienda, a high-rolling outta-towner was comped to the dining room. He ordered, as most do, the most expensive item on the menu — a steak-and-lobster combo for $25.00.

A few weeks later, a Hacienda exec called the guy in his home town, inviting him to fly in again — all at the hotel's expense, of course. "We'll fly you in first class, put you up in one of our finest suites, comp all your meals, arrange ringside seats for the show…" (That should give you some idea how much they expected this fellow to lose.)

The high roller thanked him but said he was already flying in soon — as the guest of the Marina, across the street. "But why?" the Hacienda exec asked. "Didn't we treat you right when you were here? Remember that great steak-and-lobster dinner we comped you —?"

"Yes," he said. "But over at the Marina, they comped me to a thirty dollar steak-and-lobster combination."

That afternoon, the story goes, the price of the steak-and-lobster combo at the Hacienda was raised to $32.00. There was no change in the portion. They just raised the price.

I don't know if this is true, nor do I know the names of the hotels involved. I just stuck in the Hacienda and the Marina arbitrarily and because they're both defunct. But that kind of thing goes on with comps and the restaurants that redeem them don't care half as much about paying customers as the non-paying kind.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Everyone has an opinion on how to deal with Daesh*; people who read Robert Bateman have a more informed one

When it comes to military matters, no writer out there is more smart, sensible or knowledgeable than Bateman. He's yet another reason that Charles Pierce's blog is one of the handful I check on a daily basis. 

A Helpful Primer on 13 Military Terms

* And yes, there's a good reason for the name change.

"Who am I kidding? I mean, we all have strings."

The subject of motivational speakers has been coming up recently, so I just had to post this one.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Why I'm not writing a post on Napoleon Hill

When I write a post on a new topic I usually do a quick pass through Wikipedia and after about thirty or forty-five minutes (longer if I get distracted) of following the most reliable links I can find, I'm comfortable enough to proceed. That's not what you'd call thorough research, but combined with a pretty good bullshit detector, it's usually enough to provide me some level of protection against the really embarrassing errors.

Sometimes, though, no amount of online research will get me to my desired comfort level. Case in point, a recent John Oliver segment on televangelists lead me to this fascinating piece by Budge Burgess about Napoleon Hill, one of the most successful and influential self-help authors of the past hundred years and, if Burgess is to be believed, a serial fabulist.

On one hand, Burgess makes what seems to be a convincing case that Hill, rather than having been mentored by Andrew Carnegie, never actually met the industrialist, and that the secrets he claimed to have gotten from Carnegie, Ford, Edison, Rockefeller and the rest were simply made up out of whole cloth.

The trouble is that I can't find any outside confirmation, nor can I find anything about Burgess other than what's on his site. If I were a reporter for a highly respected publication like, say, the New York Times, I might be comfortable printing something without checking it out, but, as an obscure blogger, I don't have an institutional reputation to rely on, which puts the onus on me to check my facts.

This means that the Napoleon Hill post will have to wait until more facts come in, which is too bad because it's a fun story.

Monday, November 16, 2015

"I was the Duke"

I'm always on the lookout for interesting counterexamples to conventional wisdom in places like the Internet Archive. For example, this 1956 documentary from the wonderful CBS Radio Workshop provides a fascinating glimpse of what people thought of gangs and juvenile delinquency in the 1950s. It also contains a surprising amount of language that might get you in trouble with the FCC if you ran it today.

Friday, November 13, 2015

In the spirit of the day

The Night Gallery was a tragically uneven show, but it did have its moments, such as this Rod Serling adaptation of a classic Margaret St. Clair story directed by John Badham.

If you're going to do a series called "Smarter Every Day," you should probably try to be, well, smarter

Or at least better researched. Don't get me wrong -- I am entirely on this guy's side -- but this analogy for theft of non-rival goods is terrible.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

"The Friends of Frank Fay."

I believe I've mentioned fairly frequently that I'm a fan of Kliph Nesteroff. Nesteroff is a writer and pop culture specializing in the middle half of the Twentieth Century. He has logged thousands of hours interviewing survivors from the era and his knowledge of certain areas goes down to the molecular, but he never sinks to the level off the fanboy obsessive who have come to dominate popular culture discourse. He's objective and scholarly (the article quoted below cites twenty sources) and always aware of the larger context.

All of this allows Nesteroff to consistently pull off something that most of his competitors try frequently with terrible results: he can use his specialized knowledge to tell us something interesting and useful about bigger issues like racism, censorship, the influence of organized crime in the mid-Twentieth Century (one of his specialties). For example, I knew that the Thirties was a period of intense extremism across the political spectrum, but I had assumed that during and immediately after the war, Hitler supporters would be keeping a low profile.

The Fascist Stand-Up Comic June 10, 2014

Frank Fay is considered the very first stand-up comedian. Prior to his emergence in the early 1920s, comedians accompanied their act with props and funny costumes. Even those without gimmicks rarely appeared onstage alone. Comedians had their punchlines set-up by another person, a straightman. To be a comedian meant you performed with the help of a costume or an instrument or another guy. “A comedian without a prop can’t click,” said actor Wesley Ruggles. “I learned that back in the days when I pushed the props around for Charlie Chaplin. Great pantomist that he is, Chaplin realizes the necessity of props.”

Frank Fay realized that as long as you knew what you were doing, as long as you had confidence in your material, props weren't necessary at all. The comedians insisting on props and costumes did so out of conformity or out of fear. Fay started with gimmicks like everyone else, wearing baggy pants, squirting seltzer, delivering straight lines for a comedian that circled him on roller skates - and he hated it. After humiliating himself onstage for two years, Fay decided to use the same persona he had offstage. No props, no costumes, no partner, he took to the stage wearing a well-tailored tuxedo and told jokes alone. It was so unconventional that The New York Times frowned: "“Fay needs a good straight man, as before, to feed his eccentric comedy." There was initial resistance to a man just standing and talking, but Fay's success would transform stand-up as an artform. Fellow comedians saw Fay succeed and they abandoned their props and emulated his style. Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Bob Hope and Jack Paar all cited him as an influence. Fay became one of the most influential stand-up comics of all time.
He was also comedy's most notorious racist. In January 1946, several months after Germany had been defeated, a rally of ten thousand white supremacists gathered at Madison Square Garden. They delivered speeches in support of Franco, Mussolini and their fallen hero Adolf Hitler. They promised that the defeat of Germany would not go unpunished. The podium was beneath a banner that saluted their guest of honor. The event was called "The Friends of Frank Fay."

People were resistant to hire him in Hollywood now that his anti-Semitism was famous. “In a business known for its lack of bigotry, he was a bigot,” said comedy writer Milt Josefsberg. “This was no secret, but widely known and well substantiated.” Fay married the struggling actress Barbara Stanwyck in 1928, before she found stardom. When she became famous, a joke about Fay made the rounds:

     Q: Which Hollywood actor has the biggest prick?
     A: Barbara Stanwyck.

While many celebrities distanced themselves from Fay, he found a friend in the popular radio commentator Father Charles Coughlin. Coughlin railed against “Jewish bankers” and spoke favorably of Mussolini and Hitler. His crusade against trade unions, social security and many elements of President Roosevelt's New Deal (Coughlin reportedly called it The Jew Deal) made him a hero to anti-Semites and a friend of Fay. Coughlin's political views would influence Fay in the years to come.

In 1944 he was resurrected by Broadway director Antoinette Perry, for whom the Tony Award is named. Perry cast Fay as the star of Harvey, a Pulitzer Prize winning play about an alcoholic that befriends a vision of an invisible rabbit. It brought Fay back to prominence and ran nearly eighteen hundred performances. He used his latest success to endorse Franco, Spain's fascist dictator.

At the end of 1945, several members of the theatrical union Actor's Equity rallied in favor of Spanish Refugee Appeal. Actors David Brooks, Jean Darling, Luba Malina and Sono Osato criticized the Spanish Catholic Church for executing leftists and campaigned to help Spanish leftists in exile. Fay was furious. He said their criticism was an attack on Catholicism as a whole. Fay demanded Actor’s Equity investigate each anti-Franco member for un-American activity.

The House Committee on Un-American Activities acted on Fay’s suggestion and the actors were vetted. The New York Times reported that Fay “held no brief against any member of [Actor’s Equity] for political beliefs. He resented, however, that Equity members should be party to rallies that condemn religious groups.” Equity president Bert Lytell objected to the political investigation. “Equity members have a wide latitude of interests and beliefs that they may practice and advocate as private citizens.” Actor’s Equity stood by Brooks, Darling, Malina and Osato. Rather than expel them from his union, Lytell censured Frank Fay for “conduct prejudicial to the association or its membership.”

In response to the censure, allies of Franco, members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi party organized a rally at Madison Square Garden in January 1946 called "The Friends of Frank Fay.” Speakers included Klan ally Joseph Scott, Nazi Laura Ingalls, publisher of anti-Semitic pamphlets John Geis, and the prolific Joseph P. Kamp, who had used the KKK's mailing list to distribute his work about “Jewish influence” and America’s “Communist President” Franklin D. Roosevelt.