Monday, November 30, 2015

I actually knew "Entrance of the Gladiators"

Just recently I was thinking how nice it is living in an age that has largely eradicated the nagging question. I am not talking about big, important questions like but rather trivial ones like "who said that?" or "what's the name of that song?" or "where have I seen that actor before?"

Before Google and Wikipedia and smart phones, life for many of us was a constant itching sensation of trying to recall some obscure name or fact. Of course, search engines do work better with lyrics, which is why these two lists of instrumentals are so nice.

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.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"George" "F." "Will" is no David Brooks

When I write a post criticizing David Brooks (which around here pretty much equates to writing a post about David Brooks), I generally try to work in a positive comment about Brooks' talents. This may come off as damning with faint praise or even outright sarcasm, but I am being absolutely sincere. I have serious problems with Brooks' ethics, but great respect for his craft. He is capable of sharp and elegant prose and even when the writing goes pretentious and overripe (his epic mixed metaphors come to mind), it is still bad for a reason. Sometimes, muddled can pass for erudite, and erudition is an essential part of Brooks' likable professor persona.

To fully grasp how good Brooks is, check out the occasional George Will column. Taking on a Brooks piece can be like explicating a poem. You usually have to carefully unwind the arguments until you get to the fallacies or the subtle rhetorical misdirection. With Will, it's more like grading a stack of eleventh grade English papers (complete with pretentious but not quite apt language -- "The diaspora of Reagan administration alumni" -- and a totally gratuitous Great Gatsby quote).

Take the recent dust-up with Bill O'Reilly. Here's a representative excerpt (And yes, the overuse of quotes continues throughout the piece).

O’Reilly “reports” that the trauma of the assassination attempt was somehow causally related to the “fact” that Reagan was frequently so mentally incompetent that senior aides contemplated using the Constitution’s 25th Amendment to remove him from office. But neither O’Reilly nor [Martin] Dugard spoke with any of those aides — not with Ed Meese, Jim Baker, George Shultz or any of the scores of others who could, and would, have demolished O’Reilly’s theory. O’Reilly now airily dismisses them because they “have skin in the game.” His is an interesting approach to writing history: Never talk to anyone with firsthand knowledge of your subject.
It pretty much goes on like this.

I was tempted to say more about the style, but I think the English paper comment covered what needed to be said on that topic. Instead, let's focus on the rhetoric.

Argument by eye roll is seldom a good idea even when you have the weight of the evidence squarely behind you. If the points you're mocking aren't obviously wrong, the sarcasm will usually turn around and bite you.

In this case, Will is dismissing the assertions (in reverse order) that: Reagan was showing symptoms of dementia during his second term; and the onset was accelerated by the assassination attempt. It's entirely possible that both statements are incorrect, but they aren't so obviously incorrect that you can just mock and move on, particularly when it comes to the first assertion, which was around long before O'Reilly picked it up

Here's Charles Pierce (who has written extensively on Alzheimer's).

As it happens, O'Reilly's speculation is on solid scientific footing. Alzheimer's researchers and caregivers have known for years that physical trauma can worsen the effects of the disease. Certainly, the recent  research into the connection between head trauma and dementia backs this up, and I remember a fascinating Japanese study at an Alzheimer's research conference that I attended in Osaka that studied the effect of a massive earthquake in that country on Alzheimer's patients in the affected regions. In almost all cases, the disease accelerated.


I am not willing to go as far as O'Reilly apparently does, but I have believed—and written—for years that Reagan was a symptomatic AD patient at least throughout his entire second term. My initial concern in this regard arose in 1984, during Reagan's first debate with Walter Mondale, when he plainly did not know where he was or what he was supposed to be doing. At the time, my father was beginning a slow slide into Alzheimer's himself. I knew what I was looking at on TV—and so, I learned later, did Dr. Dennis Selkoe, a prominent AD researcher in Boston. Since then, accounts of Reagan's curiously vacant episodes have popped up all over various historical accounts, and personal memoirs, of the Reagan presidency. In the latter case, everybody from Ollie North to Lawrence Walsh mentions at least one moment in which the person who was Ronald Reagan disappeared right before their eyes. In an interview in 1999 for this magazine, John McCain told me of his experience at a White House dinner, when Reagan lapsed into some middle space of his own.

Why didn't anyone try to do something? Well, they did. In Landslide, the book Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus wrote about Reagan's second term, they begin with an account of a serious investigation by concerned members of the administration to see if activating the presidential succession process was warranted. It went nowhere.
And according to the New York Times on Mayer and McManus talked to lots of people with firsthand knowledge:

Ms. Mayer and Mr. McManus are both working reporters - she for The Wall Street Journal, he for The Los Angeles Times - and this is clearly a reporter's book, full of rich anecdote and telling detail. But it is also a hybrid, a somewhat awkward hybrid at times. The core of the book, written mainly by Mr. McManus, a foreign policy expert, contains an exhaustive account of the Iran-contra affair. The political side of the story, told mainly by Ms. Mayer, a White House reporter, sometimes takes second place. Still, I am impressed with the amount of inside information collected here. The Reagan White House has retired the trophy when it comes to news management - in covering the President for the last 20 months, I have been able to ask him exactly three questions - and any effort to shatter the protective shield so assiduously constructed around Mr. Reagan is an important contribution to our understanding of the White House.
Put bluntly, the man is not sharp enough to criticize a Bill O'Reilly book. 

I previously argued that David Brooks is very good at being David Brooks. By the same token, George Will is simply terrible at being George Will.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Witch of November

Forty years ago today.

"Heathens don't amount to shucks alongside of pirates" -- understanding Ben Carson

One of the things I've realized watching the coverage of the Carson campaign is that almost none of the people reporting or commenting on the story have the slightest grasp of how evangelical culture works. For example, I've seen a great deal of confusion around Carson's insistence that he had a wild and dangerous youth, but if you know the Bible Belt, there is no mystery here.

Carson has built a lucrative second career and substantial political base on a brilliantly realized redemption narrative. These narratives invariably start with an unredeemed sinner headed for a bad end. The more lurid the sin, the more entertaining the story.

This is not a new development.

from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The first shed we come to the preacher was lining out a hymn.  He lined out two lines, everybody sung it, and it was kind of grand to hear it, there was so many of them and they done it in such a rousing way; then he lined out two more for them to sing—and so on.  The people woke up more and more, and sung louder and louder; and towards the end some begun to groan, and some begun to shout.  Then the preacher begun to preach, and begun in earnest, too; and went weaving first to one side of the platform and then the other, and then a-leaning down over the front of it, with his arms and his body going all the time, and shouting his words out with all his might; and every now and then he would hold up his Bible and spread it open, and kind of pass it around this way and that, shouting, "It's the brazen serpent in the wilderness!  Look upon it and live!"  And people would shout out, "Glory!—A-a-men!"  And so he went on, and the people groaning and crying and saying amen:

"Oh, come to the mourners' bench! come, black with sin! (Amen!) come, sick and sore! (Amen!) come, lame and halt and blind! (Amen!) come, pore and needy, sunk in shame! (A-A-Men!) come, all that's worn and soiled and suffering!—come with a broken spirit! come with a contrite heart! come in your rags and sin and dirt! the waters that cleanse is free, the door of heaven stands open—oh, enter in and be at rest!" (A-A-Men!  Glory, Glory Hallelujah!)

And so on.  You couldn't make out what the preacher said any more, on account of the shouting and crying.  Folks got up everywheres in the crowd, and worked their way just by main strength to the mourners' bench, with the tears running down their faces; and when all the mourners had got up there to the front benches in a crowd, they sung and shouted and flung themselves down on the straw, just crazy and wild.

Well, the first I knowed the king got a-going, and you could hear him over everybody; and next he went a-charging up on to the platform, and the preacher he begged him to speak to the people, and he done it.  He told them he was a pirate—been a pirate for thirty years out in the Indian Ocean—and his crew was thinned out considerable last spring in a fight, and he was home now to take out some fresh men, and thanks to goodness he'd been robbed last night and put ashore off of a steamboat without a cent, and he was glad of it; it was the blessedest thing that ever happened to him, because he was a changed man now, and happy for the first time in his life; and, poor as he was, he was going to start right off and work his way back to the Indian Ocean, and put in the rest of his life trying to turn the pirates into the true path; for he could do it better than anybody else, being acquainted with all pirate crews in that ocean; and though it would take him a long time to get there without money, he would get there anyway, and every time he convinced a pirate he would say to him, "Don't you thank me, don't you give me no credit; it all belongs to them dear people in Pokeville camp-meeting, natural brothers and benefactors of the race, and that dear preacher there, the truest friend a pirate ever had!"

And then he busted into tears, and so did everybody.  Then somebody sings out, "Take up a collection for him, take up a collection!"  Well, a half a dozen made a jump to do it, but somebody sings out, "Let him pass the hat around!"  Then everybody said it, the preacher too.

So the king went all through the crowd with his hat swabbing his eyes, and blessing the people and praising them and thanking them for being so good to the poor pirates away off there; and every little while the prettiest kind of girls, with the tears running down their cheeks, would up and ask him would he let them kiss him for to remember him by; and he always done it; and some of them he hugged and kissed as many as five or six times—and he was invited to stay a week; and everybody wanted him to live in their houses, and said they'd think it was an honor; but he said as this was the last day of the camp-meeting he couldn't do no good, and besides he was in a sweat to get to the Indian Ocean right off and go to work on the pirates.

When we got back to the raft and he come to count up he found he had collected eighty-seven dollars and seventy-five cents.  And then he had fetched away a three-gallon jug of whisky, too, that he found under a wagon when he was starting home through the woods.  The king said, take it all around, it laid over any day he'd ever put in in the missionarying line.  He said it warn't no use talking, heathens don't amount to shucks alongside of pirates to work a camp-meeting with.

Monday, November 9, 2015


Mark Evanier, who co-writes Sergio Aragonés' successful and long-running comic series Groo, shares an interesting anecdote about the origin of the book. [Emphasis added]
Today, there are these things called "creator-owned comics," meaning that the writer and/or artist own(s) the comic, not the publisher. In the early-to-mid-seventies, as Señor Aragonés was doodling out his ideas for Sergio-created comics, there was no major American comic book publisher who was willing to publish a creator-owned comic. In fact, some even told you it legally could not be done.

I'm not kidding about this. There were writers and artists who created comics and had — or felt they had — no avenue but to hand All Rights over to the company in exchange for no credit, no ownership, no royalties. They got work doing the comic, if that much. Some tried to dicker — and they didn't even want full ownership…just, say, 20%. And they were told, "No, we will never in a zillion years make a deal like that." Sergio showed Groo to one publisher and was told, "Great…but we legally have to own it. You, as an individual, cannot legally own a copyright. It's invalid unless it's in the name of a company like ours."

Sergio knew that was wholly untrue. I wonder how many other writers and artists who heard that speech didn't.
Both Joseph and I have been over this a number of times, but for those just tuning in, intellectual property laws basically amount to government-granted monopolies. These monopolies can be enormously beneficial both to creators and to society as a whole, but there's also a huge potential for abuse, particularly on the part of those buying the work of the creators.

You often have actual or near monopsony conditions. Add to that large asymmetries in information, power, size, liquidity and legal resources. Strengthening and extending copyrights and patents is often presented as something that is uniformly good for those who actually come up with the artist works and technical innovations being protected, but if those creators are not adequately protected, stronger IP laws can simply provide more incentive to screw them over.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Return of the rabbit ears

I've gotten way behind on the over-the-air television/terrestrial superstation story. For example, I missed this very good LA Times piece by Stephen Battaglio (I originally called it excellent, but a quick reread uncovered a couple of mistakes -- Weigel launched ThisTV before MeTV and stations can carry more than five sub-channels. Other than that, it was possibly the best write-up I've seen to date).  

I'll be revisiting this later but for now here's a short excerpt and a few brief comments. 

Unplug your cable system and find MeTV, which stands for Memorable Entertainment Television. The network airs hits such as "M*A*S*H," "Bonanza" and "Star Trek," and averages about 521,000 viewers in daytime — higher than all but nine national cable networks. From 5 to 11 p.m., MeTV ranked 20th with 667,000 viewers compared with those networks.

Other media companies have also turned to classic TV as a low-cost programming solution for multicast channels, which now reportedly take in more than $250 million a year in ad revenue.

A quarter of a billion dollars is quite a bit of money, particularly with an audience that is disproportionately poor and over fifty.

A quarter of a billion dollars would be downright incredible if Nielsen were right and OTA were small and shrinking.

Furthermore, the terrestrial superstation world was much smaller when this article came out in early April. Among other developments, CBS and ABC both jumped into the game.

Weigel's MeTV broke the top ten daytime and the top twenty prime time with very little original programming, almost no PR budget and no external advertising. A small independent leading an industry just through word of mouth is nearly unheard of.

There has been a remarkably clear regional pattern in the coverage of OTA television. The best and most comprehensive has come from Chicago, historically a broadcasting town and, not coincidentally, home of the first two major players, Weigel and Tribune. The second best has come from LA, another TV town. By far the worst has come from NYC, which does support some production, but not enough to affect the flavor of the city. This isn't a slam against East Coast journalists but rather a reminder that location still matters. If most of the people you listen to live within fifty miles of each other, you aren't truly getting a wide range of viewpoints. And if they also come from the same income level, and went to the same schools and...

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The more things change -- advertising edition

One of these days, I want to start a good, detailed thread on advertising and marketing. If and when I do, it will almost certainly mention this very cool find from Wikipedia.

In ancient China, the earliest advertising known was oral, as recorded in the Classic of Poetry (11th to 7th centuries BC) of bamboo flutes played to sell candy. Advertisement usually takes in the form of calligraphic signboards and inked papers. A copper printing plate dated back to the Song dynasty [960–1279 A.D. -- MP] used to print posters in the form of a square sheet of paper with a rabbit logo with "Jinan Liu's Fine Needle Shop" and "We buy high quality steel rods and make fine quality needles, to be ready for use at home in no time" written above and below is considered the world's earliest identified printed advertising medium.
Of the things that's fascinating about this is how many of the elements and how much of the specific language of modern advertisements were in place a thousand years ago. We have branding complete with logo, claims of high quality, and appeals to convenience. Add three cameras and an over-eager studio audience and you have an infomercial.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Just because you're a critic doesn't mean you have to be critical

[in case you're wondering, this one has been in the queue for a while]

I know this is a fairly trivial matter, but in keeping with our running thread on the flack-to-hack ratio, it is worth noting that Tom Cruise seems to have bought a lifetime pass for good reviews from the LA Weekly movie section ever since their chief critic, Amy Nicholson, wrote a book length puff piece on Cruise which she then cut down to a feature ("Our Last Real Movie Star") for the weekly.

Having firmly established the appearance of conflict of interest, the editors go on to make her the default reviewer for all Tom Cruise films in the future. It is therefore not much of a surprise when Rogue Nation gets a review that starts like this.
At 53, Tom Cruise is past the retirement age of every James Bond except Roger Moore. Yet his 19-year-old Mission: Impossible series ticks on, counting down the seconds till its next explosion — and Cruise's Ethan Hunt is determined to unman his cross-Atlantic competition. Forget high-tech gadgets. The older Cruise gets, the more he relies on his fists. (And his abs, and his nerves — he'll never let you forget he does his own stunts, and why should he?) His body is the wonder-gizmo, and Christopher McQuarrie, writer and director of the fifth entry, Rogue Nation, keeps the camera on him like a nature show about a hungry lion.
And pretty much proceeds in a straight line from there.

Obviously, the stakes are fairly low here ("Journalists writing puff pieces? I'm shocked, shocked I tell you!"), but it is always good to remind ourselves how much of what we read, be it reviews or articles or op-ed pieces, started out as a gleam in some publicist's eye.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


I'll just give you the short version of the first part of the story (my brakes are quite good; those of the guy behind me, not so much) and skip to the part where I'm driving down the street listening to satellite radio in a crappy rental car.

I am sure that if I were familiar with the system, I could find all sorts of interesting offerings on Sirius XM, but since I'm only going to have the car for a few days and I don't feel like digging through all of the channels, I decided to leave it on the first one that seemed passable. That turned out to be the outlaw country station.

I normally jump around the dial quite a bit, but given the lack of commercials and the number of really bad stations I had to go through to find a decent one, I just decided to leave the radio where it was.

So I am on the second day of getting in touch with my good old boy roots and listening to Merle and Waylon and songs that rhyme whiskey with "frisk me," and I get to thinking about the connections between outlaw country and punk and gangsta rap.

I decide there might be a post in this, so there I am, driving down the road thinking about the various similarities in topic and attitude and, I swear I'm not making this up, this song comes on the radio:

Sometimes, God just loves bloggers. Maybe that's why he made so many of us.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Defending the indefensible for fun and profit – lesson 1: tone and framing

David Brooks has come in for a lot of mockery for his latest column on Marco Rubio from commentators like Jonathan Chait (“What Should We Believe: Marco Rubio or Math?”) and Charles Pierce. Even Paul Krugman, who is required by NYT policy not to engage Brooks directly, couldn't resist pushing the envelope.

Here's the passage that seems to have inspired the most reaction.
At this stage it’s probably not sensible to get too worked up about the details of any candidate’s plans. They are all wildly unaffordable. What matters is how a candidate signals priorities. Rubio talks specifically about targeting policies to boost middle- and lower-middle-class living standards.

Both Krugman and Chait both draw a parallel between Brooks' signals-over-details approach and the coverage of George W. Bush sixteen years ago, then go on to criticize Rubio's details. Chait goes on at some length:

One defense of Rubio’s alleged moderation is that he would cut the top tax rate to 35 percent, as opposed to the even lower rates proposed by various other candidates and multilevel marketers posing as candidates in the GOP field. But, remember, the Bush tax cuts also cut the top tax rate to 35 percent. Bringing that rate back to that level was the subject of intense political struggle in 2001 and again in 2012 to 2013, because there is a lot of money at stake. And whereas Bush merely reduced taxes on dividends and capital gains — forms of income that overwhelmingly accrue to the very affluent — Rubio would eliminate them altogether.

Rubio does create a $2,500-per-child tax credit, which would help families if it was refundable. (Rubio’s campaign has said it would not be refundable, and thus do very little to help the poor.) Even if we assume otherwise, however, the assumption that Rubio’s tax cut helps the poor relies on the assumption that his proposals have no trade-off whatsoever. In reality, reducing federal revenues by $6 trillion over a decade would put immense pressure on the federal budget. Rubio has already promised to increase defense spending and keep Medicare and Social Security untouched for current or near-retirees, making them unavailable for budget savings within the next decade. Those programs — along with interest on the national debt, which cannot be cut — account for two thirds of the federal budget. Domestic discretionary programs, which fund things like transportation, scientific research, and the basic nuts and bolts of the federal agencies, have been cut so deeply that even many Republicans are eager to lift their caps. That means the brunt of Rubio’s fiscal pressure would come to bear on the minority of the federal budget that goes directly to the poor.

But a single passage can't really capture either the skill or the duplicity of Brooks' column. He is defending the indefensible here, not in the sense that Rubio's proposals are morally reprehensible, but in the sense that Brooks has been tasked with making a rational, wonky case for a plan where two plus two equals one here, equals seventeen there, and a couple of pages later, equals the inverse of the square root of pi. The Rubio campaign doesn't even try to hide the contradictions. They point to a Tax Foundation report to support the claim that “the largest after-tax gains is for the people at the lower end of the tax spectrum under my plan” while simultaneously admitting that the Tax Foundation got those gains from the mistaken belief that the refunds were refundable (and thus, would actually go to the very poor). See Dylan Matthews for the details and Rick Perlstein for some interesting background on the Tax Foundation.

It is Brooks' job to make calm, reasonable arguments supporting establishment conservative positions. That's what he's paid to do. That's where his reputational capital lies. At the moment the top priority of the establishment is to get the non-Trump/Carson wing of the party to coalesce behind an establishment candidate, which, at this point, more or less has to be Rubio. The challenge here is to sound Brooksian (maintaining an air of rationality and scholarship) while making an argument based on emotional associations.

Here's how he begins:
So after all the meshugas on the right over the past few years, the Republicans could wind up with two new leaders going into this election, Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan. That’s a pretty excellent outcome for a party that has shown an amazing tendency to inflict self-harm.

Ryan is the new House speaker and right now Rubio is the most likely presidential nominee. The shape of the presidential campaign is coming into focus. It’s still wise to expect (pray) that the celebrity candidates will fade as the shopping phase ends and the buying phase begins.

Voters don’t have to know the details of their nominee’s agenda, but they have to know that the candidate is capable of having an agenda. Donald Trump and Ben Carson go invisible when the subject of actual governance comes up.

Brooks starts casual – after all those meshugas, it's pretty excellent to have these guys – and he takes his time getting to that first key claim about Rubio. In typical fashion, the first half of the claim is sensible bordering on obvious -- I suspect most people would say that voters don't need  to know the details; they only need to know that independent experts find the details reasonable -- while the second half is highly questionable.  “Capable of having an agenda” is an incredibly low standard for a presidential nominee.

A bit later we get another nice pivot with the paragraph that's gotten so much attention:
While other candidates are repeating the formulas of the 1980s and 1990s, Rubio is a child of this century. He understands that it’s no longer enough to cut taxes and say bad things about government to produce widespread prosperity. In a series of major policy speeches over the past two years (he’s one of the few candidates who actually gives them), Rubio has emphasized that new structural problems threaten the American dream: technology displacing workers, globalization suppressing wages and the decline of marriage widening inequality.

His proposals reflect this awareness. At this stage it’s probably not sensible to get too worked up about the details of any candidate’s plans. They are all wildly unaffordable. What matters is how a candidate signals priorities. Rubio talks specifically about targeting policies to boost middle- and lower-middle-class living standards.

Check out how the first paragraph and the first sentence of the second seem to be leading up to a discussion of the ideas laid out in all of these major policy speeches? (by the way, if you're trying to slip a paragraph with a questionable thesis past readers, taking the last sentence of the previous paragraph and moving it to the beginning of the questionable one is a useful technique.) Then Brooks pulls a sharp rhetorical turn and says forget details, what matters is signaling.

[A quick aside. As Krugman points out, “any candidate” here apparently means “any GOP candidate” (and possibly “any leading GOP candidate”) None of Clinton's proposals appear to be wildly unaffordable.]

Signaling priorities might be a valid topic for a column but that's not where this one goes. Having told us that the details don't matter, Brooks dives back into the details. He spends the next half dozen paragraphs praising Rubio's policy ideas on taxes, education and the social safety net before concluding:
If Ryan and Rubio do emerge as the party’s two leaders, it will be the wonkiest leadership team in our lifetime. That’s a good thing.

You can see Brooks' dilemma. He wants to portray Rubio as a serious, detail-oriented policy thinker, a wonk among wonks, but Rubio's actual proposals make this line of argument extremely difficult. Even in the column's brief summary, Brooks includes Oren Cass's debunked claims about disabilities benefits and the aforementioned tax credit (where Brooks appears to make the same mistake that the Tax Foundation did).

By framing the discussion in terms of signaling and being “capable of having an agenda,” Brooks is able to praise Rubio's ideas without actually having to defend them. It is a characteristically smart and well-executed strategy and another reminder that David Brooks is very good at being David Brooks.