SOME POLITICS FRIDAY

Posted in Rants on November 30th, 2007 by Ed

My original NPF post for today was supposed to be about No Country for Old Men and how you need to sprint to a theater and see it. Since that piece of information fits squarely under "No shit, Cap'n Obvious" I'll leave it at that and talk about something more entertaining. Suffice it to say that Javier Bardem's performance is probably going to rocket into the top five of this list in short order. Having only seen him before as a gay Cuban poet in Before Night Falls, let's just say he was a surprise.

OK. So that "CNN/YouTube" GOP debate last night. I did not watch it. I couldn't bring myself to do it. But after having consumed most of it on the Series of Tubes today, I can't let it go without comment. It was simply humiliating. It wasn't an entertaining kind of trainwreck, nor did the candidates take it in good humor, nor did the format make it watchable. It was just thoroughly degrading in every possible way.

For once I have to throw my lot in with the Liberal Media Bias crowd – there is no question that CNN set that event up with the sole intent of humiliating the candidates and their party. The candidates uniformily look like they are participating in the debate at gunpoint, which underscores the fact that they'd most likely rather be shot than sit there and pretend like they are taking questions from crackpotted idiots and shut-ins seriously. Honest to God, it was one step up from making the candidates answer questions from kindergarteners or the untreatably psychotic. Before the debate was 10 minutes old we already had to listen to some fucking retard with an acoustic guitar sing about the candidates shortly before Giuliani and Romney started clawing at each other like homeless people fighting over meat (except they were actually accusing one another of being nice to immigrants).

My hat seriously, honestly, and without sarcasm goes off to McCain, Thompson, and the others who spent the entire debate looking like they couldn't wait to leave and/or would rather be drinking lead paint. As the Weekly Standard said:

So, a good night for for the lowest denominator, a bad night for the GOP. America got to see a vaguely threatening parade of gun fetishists, flat worlders, Mars Explorers, Confederate flag lovers and zombie-eyed-Bible-wavers as well as various one issue activists hammering their pet cause.

Maybe the GOP deserves the abuse and maybe that was a true and accurate representation of the party. My gut reaction, however, is that it was merely an accurate representation of non-conservatives' caricature of the party. It's about as fair as portraying Al Sharpton and Ward Churchill as representative of the entire Democratic Party. Then again, since the right does just that all the fucking time, maybe CNN is merely settling the cosmic debt by devoting an evening to depicting Republicans as flat-earthers, gun fetishists, and zombie-eyed Bible wavers.

In short, the cynical part of me thinks CNN got it right. The Jerry Springer booing/hooting, the idiotic questions from people who didn't look qualified to work a fryer at Burger King, the scary backwoods gun/Bible crowd….that's GOP America. But the more realistic part of me thinks that the network did all of us a disservice by giving a lot of ammunition to people around the world who are inclined to see America that way. Watching that debate from start to finish (which I couldn't stomach – just a series of short bursts) would inevitably lead one to the conclusion that the American public is totally and irrevocably unfit to govern itself. While I question our national IQ on a daily basis, I actually give us a little more credit than that. Circuses like that only reinforce exaggerated stereotypes and the belief that we, as a nation, can barely dress ourselves let alone engage in political discourse.

WORTHY CAUSES

Posted in Rants on November 29th, 2007 by Ed

I must be brief today, but what I lack in quantity I will make up in substance.

Save Tucker! No, seriously, Save Tucker Carlson. Or so the website savetucker.org would have you believe. It appears that Mr. Carlson is being "ideologically purged" from MSNBC as it drops "any pretense of objectivity or balance." It might be worth noting that Carlson's ratings are beyond abysmal. Apparently right-wing talk show fans aren't really excited by a pale 5th-rate imitation of George Will. Come to think of it…if George Will put it in Jonah Goldberg's ass and that somehow resulted in conception, I'd be shocked if the offspring didn't look exactly like Mr. Bow Tie.

It used to be that having the lowest ratings on Earth was ample reason to get cancelled. After all, isn't that why they axed Phil Donahue? Was that an "ideological purging" too or was it the will of the Free and Just Market? Anyway, I will not be writing MSNBC in righteous anger as SaveTucker.org recommends. But I will helpfully offer Mr. Carlson some employment advice. Infomercial host? (Coral Calcium – the miracle cure THEY don't want you to know about!) American Gladiators commentator? Submissive scat porn star?

Oh, who are we kidding. He'll be on Fox News within a week.

FIRE UP THE TIVO

Posted in Rants on November 28th, 2007 by Ed

Ten years from now I can picture a lively debate about which ephemeral News Corp ratings bomb was worse: the Half Hour News Hour or Fox Business Network. The former is already resigned to the "bad idea" pile of history while the latter was recently launched to much fanfare and absolutely no interest. I give it six months. Tops. The fishtank at your dentist's office has more viewers. Frankly I don't understand how the public can resist tuning in for gems like this interview between FBN's David Asman and Our Leader:

ASMAN: You call yourself a supply sider. You speech today was all about tax cuts. But were even you surprised at how much revenue came into the Treasury when you lowered those tax rates?

Rupert Murdoch said when pitching the concept of the new network that CNBC is "too negative toward business" and FBN would be more "business friendly." And boy howdy did they deliver. If you haven't watched it, treat yourself to a couple of minutes. It is exactly what you would expect – cloying, insipid cheerleading sandwiched between chunks of fluff. The effect is not unlike being waterboarded with high-fructose corn syrup.

This won't make any sense to you unless you take the plunge and briefly tune in, but I have one burning question – who or what do they think is the market for this shit? Obviously, judging by the ratings, the answer is "no one." But I'd really like to get inside the heads of the marketing folks and Exec VPs of Programming who dreamed up this backyard abortion of a network. I can't imagine anyone who knows about, cares about, or works in the field of finance sitting down and watching tripe like this. It would be akin to expecting professional chefs to watch "Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee" with rapt attention.

Apparently (as best I can tell) the brilliant minds at Fox were expecting to create a business channel for idiots, having already mastered news for idiots. They thought that people who don't know a goddamn thing about finance or the economy would tune in and be easily influenced by psychotically perky "experts" telling them how wonderful everything is. Unfortunately, as they are now learning, mouth-breathing adults who process the world at a grade school level simply aren't going to be watching a business network – no matter how lobotomized and dumbed-down. Where are the "breaking news" stories about celebrities? Where are the heated discussions about Hulk Hogan's divorce? Where's the sports break every 10 minutes?

So congratulations, Rupert. You've got your business network; your own 24-7 platform to tell the world how f'n great the Greatest Story Never Told really is for the average man. The result is something far too vacuous and irrelevant for people who actually care about business news…and not remotely interesting to the average Fox News drone with a 30-second attention span. Fire up the TiVO and record your very own slice of what will soon be forgotten. Ten years from now you may need to reassure yourself that it existed and you did not imagine something so ridiculous.

ED VS. LOGICAL FALLACIES, PART 11: SUNK COSTS

Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on November 27th, 2007 by Ed

I've enjoyed talking about a lot of very common logical fallacies, but today I want to go slightly more obscure (inspired by yesterday's comments): the fallacy of sunk costs and its close relative the Monte Carlo fallacy. Both fallacies proceed from the same basic – and utterly flawed – premise. They assume that the probabilities or outcomes of independent events are somehow dependent.

The sunk costs fallacy is simply the belief that having already invested x to accomplish y logically supports the idea of investing more irrespective of whether or not it will contribute to accomplishing y. This is sometimes known as the "Concorde Fallacy" after a famous academic paper that used that ill-fated aircraft as a perfect example. Both investing nations (Britain and France) knew perfectly well that the plane was an albatross with no chance to be financially viable, but….they had already invested so goddamn much in its development that they believed the only logical thing to do was spend more to finish it. I think "good money after bad" is the proper adage. In other words, "If we stop now, all that we have spent will be lost."

This logic need not always be fallacious. If spending a few more bucks would have made the Concorde a money-making airplane, then additional spending would clearly be the best choice. To put it another way, let's say you're done with 2.5 years of law school. Stopping is a poor decision. Your investment will be lost – spending money for one more semester is the only smart choice. But suppose that after 3 years of law school you had not managed to pass a single class or accumulate a single credit. You're no closer to the goal than you were at the beginning. Unless you have some explicit reason to think that the 7th semester will be a success whereas the first 6 availed you of nothing, investing more is retarded.

Examples of this are far too common in the political world. We need not think back very far to find images of LBJ hemmoraging money and lives into Vietnam well after he explicitly concluded that the cause was hopeless. In more recent times, of course, Our President constantly tells us with respect to Iraq:

I've met too many wives and husbands who've lost their partner in life, too many children who'll never see their mom or dad again. I owe it to them and to the families who still have loved ones in harm's way, to ensure that their sacrifices are not in vain.

Look at that. It says absolutely nothing about how likely success is, or if we are any closer to success than we were in 2002. It is simply, "If we quit now, all we have invested will be lost." Which is, you know, the f'n definition of this fallacy. If you are wasting or have wasted something, the proper response is to stop. Instead, they spend more in a Quixote-like quest to change what has already happened. If there is a reason to believe that spending more will affect the outcome, then by all means go ahead. But an argument based on spending more to honor or justify what has already been spent is…is "idiotic" too strong of a word? There's a reason that every stock market investor who subscribes to this logic goes broke.

One often finds this paired with the Monte Carlo fallacy (aka "Gambler's Fallacy"). This is simply a belief that independent events are not independent. If I flip a coin 10 times and get 10 heads, it is still 50/50 that the 11th toss will be tails. It is not more likely to be heads because the coin has produced 10 consecutive heads. Gamblers believe in things like "runs" of events and completely disregard the fact that most of what they do (roulette wheel spins, for example) are entirely independent. Your odds for red vs. black on any roulette wheel spin are 18/38. It doesn't matter if it's the first spin or the 10,000th spin – that is the probability. Period. Two blacks in a row or two thousand blacks in a row are irrelevant.

The logic of allocating resources depends solely on an objective analysis of the facts. Will the expenditure contribute to accomplishing the goal? What are the actual odds of success? Instead, partly out of stubbornness and partly out of abject stupidity, people abandon all logic in favor of emotion. They're humiliated by failure and embarassed to be wrong so they rationalize proceeding when all signs say "stop." All of these arguments – we're "due," we're on a hot streak, or we must keep spending because we've already spent a lot – are branches of the same tree. And all of them are the kind of thing that enable stupid people to turn ordinary setbacks into crippling, spectacular failures.

ON SUPPORTING THE CLIPPERS

Posted in Rants on November 26th, 2007 by Ed

Looking forward to the 2008 presidential election, as I find myself doing often lately, there are literally dozens of reasons for the Democrats to be optimistic. We can run down a lengthy checklist of positive signs. Polling data showing the incumbent and his party to be incredibly unpopular? Check. Well-funded candidates with money and name recognition? Check. A lousy field of GOP candidates with no clear front-runner? Check. Economy going straight into the shitter? Check. Wildly unpopular, expensive, and interminable war? Check. Positive outcome from the 2006 midterms? Check. Yes, it's a great time to run for president as a Democrat.

So why am I so pessimistic?

It's tempting to say that I feel like a fan of the Washington Generals (for those of you who miss that reference, they're the fake team who were created to play, and lose every game to, the Harlem Globetrotters). That would be inaccurate; the system was set up such that the Generals literally could not win. The Democrats are not hopelessly unable to compete. Instead, the sad fact is that they are not only able to win but in many cases the odds are in their favor. No, the Democrats are a team that often should win but always finds – invents, if necessary – ways to blow it. They're the political world's Arizona Cardinals. Chicago Cubs. L.A. Clippers. "Lovable losers," if you will, although they're often only half of that statement. Give the Democrats a decorated war hero to run against a draft dodging idiot and they find a way to blow it. That's the sort of thing they do…all the goddamn time.

Am I just being too pessimistic? Have years of being an actual Arizona Cardinal fan warped my mind so that I see defeat looming everywhere? Feel free to sound off and let me know how you're feeling about the odds. No matter how many polls I see or how terrible the GOP field manages to look (and make no mistake, it is historically awful) I just cannot shake the feeling that the Democrats are going to go down in flames next November. Every comment I hear – be it media or regular voters – has the same pattern: an expression of condemnation of the GOP followed by some sort of suggestive hint that, well, those Democrats just aren't any better. Ergo, if I may complete their mental road map, voting for Giuliani is the superior option. No matter how many people die in Iraq, no matter that the GOP field is laden with neocon cowboys hell-bent on war with Iran, no matter how much real wages fall, no matter how badly unequal our nation's wealth….when shove comes back to push these "middle American"/"undecided"/"average Joe" voters are going to make up some reason to vote for another right-wing gas bag. Said reason, of course, will probably be some fiscally ludicrous round of tax cuts.

So it's time for a verdict on Ed: paranoid or drifting toward the sad truth?

WHERE IS (THEIR) MIND?

Posted in Rants on November 22nd, 2007 by Ed

Frank Black wants to know. I want to tell you.

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Transformers (film) [303,600]

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MAGIC BEANS AND A BRIDGE FOR SALE

Posted in Rants on November 21st, 2007 by Ed

I assume the whole world is traveling to spend a few quality hours with the uncles who weren't allowed to be alone with you when you were younger. So I will keep this brief – as brief as you will keep the substantive portion of your conversations with Uncle Larry.

Scott McClellan's writing a book. Lo and behold, he will reveal within that many of the things he was told to say were not true. White House Press Secretaries have approximately the hardest job on Earth (maybe that's why Tony Snow couldn't hack it….oh wait, it was because it didn't pay enough). Maybe McClellan should go play tennis with old Clinton human shield Mike McCurry. The latter found himself in a nearly identical situation during MonicaGate. He was repeatedly assured by a man he deeply trusted that there was simply no truth at all to these allegations. Cut to the next scene: Deeply Trusted Man admits guilt.

It's a difficult job inasmuch as they are usually people with strong emotional commitments to the men they serve, but it's only a matter of time until the Press Sec ends up being hung out to dry. I don't believe they're stupid. I think they're willing to trust their presidents. That trust can only tempt politicians for so long until they abuse it by making subordinates unwittingly shill for their lies. The White House insists that McClellan knew everything all along. Is this just image rehab on the part of a forgettable bag of fluid in a cheap suit? I doubt it. More like the tales of a jilted lover.

POST-HUMANITY

Posted in Rants on November 20th, 2007 by Ed

I don't usually encourage people to spend more time watching television, but do yourself a favor and catch a repeat of the Ted Koppel special "Breaking Point" on Discovery Channel. The show gives an excellent snapshot of our nation's downright insane correctional system and meticulously documents its transition into the post-rehabilitation, purely punitive era.

Since 1980 we have essentially abandoned the idea of educating or rehabilitating the incarcerated in favor of simply warehousing them. It's pretty basic – offer tidal waves of rhetoric to scare the crap out of yuppie suburban taxpayers, build more jails (with a healthy dose of privatization), and shift the emphasis to segregating Us from as many of Them as possible. Add a healthy dose of lunatic recipes for overcrowding like mandatory minimums, three-strikes legislation, and boatloads of War on Drugs-sponsored 10- to 15-year sentences. Forget all that liberal nanny state New Deal era nonsense about rehabilitation – the solution to all of our problems is more brown people in more jails for longer periods of time. We don't want to rehabilitate them. The goal is simply to get rid of them.

One scene from the Koppel special merits emphasis. Prisoners suspected of having drugs (a neurotic obsession of the staff throughout the program) are subject to constant searches. In some cases they are suspected of swallowing or inserting drugs into their anuses to prevent detection. To counter this, the guards wrap the suspected inmates in an orange body suit which is sealed with tape at the neck, waist, ankles, and wrists. The inmates must wear the sealed suit for three days (urinating and defecating in their clothes) after which the suit is removed and their excretions are searched for drugs.

Read that again and let it sink in. Upon seeing this, I beg any rational person to ask: Is it even remotely surprising that these people are like animals when they get out of prison? Anyone shocked that they fail to rejoin society as productive members? The system treats them like animals and they become exactly that. Then the Tough on Crime crowd can point at them and say "Look! How can animals like this be rehabilitated?"

Welcome to another step in America's journey to a third-world society. 10% of the country controls 99% of the wealth, 80% of the population (the wage earners) live in debt/fear/insecurity, and the remaining 10% are entirely superfluous. You just have to get rid of them. Third-world countries send out paramilitary skull-crackers to round up and kill them. We enlightened Americans demonize, warehouse, and brutalize them until their lives are forfeit. That's really all the War on Drugs is about.

FEEL FREE TO TASE ME, BRO

Posted in Rants on November 19th, 2007 by Ed

UPDATE: Speaking of the devil, here's a front-page CNN story on Taser deaths. Good timing, Ed.

By now we've all seen the video and read the news about the unarmed Polish immigrant tasered to death by the RCMP up north. Sad, alarming, and so on. What bothers me is not so much this isolated incident (and let's be honest, it is rare for people to die from a taser) but the shocking willingness of police to use what are antiseptically called "less lethal" (formerly "non-lethal") weapons.

I do not like cops. Sorry. I realize that many cops are good, decent people. Many more of them are not. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the generalization that they are adult incarnations of junior high bullies who overcompensate for mediocrity with authority. Beyond that, the attitude that their actions are above reproach (especially by those of us who haven't walked in their shoes and don't know what it's like**) coupled with a monolithic bunker mentality is enough to make me puke pure bile. So now that my biases are out of the way…

The average cop in the post-Reagan, War On Drugs, COPS, kicking through doors, smashing through windows, militarization of law enforcement era needs boundaries. For the most part I believe those boundaries are provided by the law. They understand that they are being watched and videotaped, and that we know what is and is not acceptable behavior. Unfortunately I believe that the use of pepper spray, tasers, less-lethal projectiles (beanbags, rubber bullets), CS gas, and the like are an area in which no real boundaries exist. And I do not trust cops to "use their judgment" to effectively restrain themselves.

The problem lies with the original nomenclature: "non-lethal" means. We've played a neat little semantic game and re-named them "less lethal" since, well, the non-lethal weapons were killing a lot of people. But I believe the damage has been done. The police and their apologists (the kind of people who bend over backwards to excuse every video of 5 cops wailing on a black guy or shooting an unarmed immigrant 41 times) have so thoroughly convinced themselves that pepper spray and tasers are "harmless" or no big deal that cops' restraint is approaching zero.

A taser is just like a little electric shock! Stun guns only give victims "an owie." Pepper spray causes a little bit of burning for a few minutes – no biggie. Rubber bullets only leave a tiny welt and can't kill. Yes, all these things are so unbelievably insignificant that….well, there's just no harm at all in using them. Why not just approach every suspect with the pepper spray in hand? If he gives you any lip, empty it in his face. Since it's "temporary" and "minor pain" and "less lethal" and all those other things, why not? Why not disperse every crowd with some flying beanbags and tear gas? No lasting harm done, right?

Most police – and I mean 99.99999% of them – realize that they can't respond to any and all threats by whipping out the pistol and plugging away. I doubt many of them feel the same way about their "less lethal" methods. High profile incidents like the UCLA library taser incident or the now-infamous "don't tase me, bro!" video show that using weapons (and remember, less lethal items are exactly that) is no longer a last option for the police. I'd say it's a second or third option these days. Ask yourself, in either of those two campus incidents, why the police did not simply pick up the suspect and carry him out of the room. I understand the concept of resisting arrest, but I'm pretty confident that 8 cops can carry a 180-pound sophomore – even a struggling one. Why bother? It's so much easier to whip out the taser and zap away.

Well, unfortunately "less lethal" tends to be Pretty Lethal when used repeatedly. Incidents of people dying from pepper spray are not common by the percentages, but when the sample size is dramatically increased…..well, the raw numbers start to be consequential regardless of the probability. We see people dying to celebrate the World Series. You have almost 100 people being given an impromptu death sentence since 1990 by police who douse them in pepper spray regardless of how insignificant their offenses were (see here or here, or just as your friend Google about pepper spray deaths).

The fact is that the status of these weapons as non-lethal or less-lethal is probably already too ingrained in the minds of law enforcement (and a pitifully large percentage of the public) to do anything about it now. There are too many excuses about "isolated incidents" and phony internal reviews in which police departments investigate themselves and determine (shockingly) that the deaths were due to other factors. But the poor, poor police are just so badly overmatched by pissy college kids. Under such circumstances we should be downright thrilled to be tased.

**(This is why people like Bill O'Reilly would never criticize college professors. They understand that, not having been professors, they cannot possibly pass judgment on the profession)

FEDERAL POUND-ME-IN-THE-ASS PRISON

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 16th, 2007 by Ed

Today's No Politics Friday ™ is about baseball and Project Runway.

First of all, Project Runway Season 4 is on notice. I mean, honestly, did you see that shit? Several months ago I saw a website with headshots and short bios of all the new contestants, and I had only one thought: Oh shit. Rather than do what made the show so good – pick likeable people (save one or two designated assholes) with a lot of talent – they've obviously put together an MTV Real World cast of "quirky" people with stupid tattoos. It's like they went down a goddamn checklist. Straight guy who looks like Jeffrey? Check. Jay-like fat gay dude? Check. Completely stoned-out idiot a la Bradley? Check. Utterly talentless woman in her 40s? Check. UltraMegaSuper Gay guy along the lines of Austin Scarlett? Check.

Even worse, from everything I've read this season descends into Top Chef-style judging; i.e., the producers tell the judges who to pick based on which catty bitch wars they think are amusing. That rewards talentless little cunts like Marcel (who stuck around Top Chef to the bitter end because they thought we wanted to see him argue with everyone) and this fucking guy Christian. The second he opened his goddamn mouth I wanted him and his stupid f'n Hot Topic haircut to die. I will not be satisfied until he does. And what is the deal with the retarded nicknames? "Kat Pistol"? "Sweet P"? I feel like I'm at f'n roller derby or some stupid crap like that. Shame on you, Bravo. Stop recruiting talent from the list of rejected extras from Miami Ink.

Second, the Barry Bonds news had me on the floor last night. Yes, I am a huge baseball fan. No, I don't particularly give a crap if he rots in hell and/or Federal Pound-Me-in-the-Ass Prison. What slays me is that Bonds was indicted and 90 minutes later his personal trainer Greg Anderson walked out of prison. You've gotta hand it to the Feds, they know how to play mind games. Read it loud and clear, Barry: We're indicting you…because your last friend in the world just flipped on you. Anderson was so willing to stay quiet until he had a couple months to chat with Mr. Prison. Prison'll do that, I guess.

There you go. Baseball and Project Runway.