Monday, November 26, 2007

Those Penny-pinching Admen

I've noticed a new trend in television commercials. Take the Cadillac commercials. Initially they featured Kate Walsh and the awesome guitar part from Hum's classic song 'Stars'.
Now they feature Lance Reddick from the Wire and that one really awesome episode of the X-Files--and a clip with the same effect, the same atmosphere and general Hummishness, but a sound-alike clip nonetheless, that likely costs Cadillac none of the royalties they had to pay for the HUm clip.
Likewise a Walmart commercial features an instrumental from Badly Drawn Boy's great About A Boy soundtrack, and later broadcasts of the commercial run with a sound-alike, with the same twinkling glockenspiel as the original without any of the residuals to Badly Drawn Boy.
Way to thrift it up, Madison Avenue!

Dear Simpsons Writing Staff

a). Anagrams are not funny.
b). Puns are not funny.
c). Cleverness is not, in and of itself, funny.
d). Guest stars that play themselves are, generally speaking, not funny.
e). Homer singing is not funny.
f). Long series of product names altered slightly from their originals (e.g. Sketch-n-Etch, Ravenous Ravenous Rhinos, Herschel's Smootches) are, pursuant to b), not funny.
g). Homer suffering brain damage is no longer funny.
h). Bart hinting at deep-seated emotional problems underpinning his behavior is still hilarious.

Teacher says every time a bell rings, daddy throws away my future

You must read Kyle Smith's brilliant retelling of It's A Wonderful Life in Today's New York Post. Some highlights:
Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey accurately calls Bedford Falls “this crummy little town" and spends the movie trying to get away. He nearly kills himself because even suicide looks pretty good compared to upstate New York.
In the Pottersville scene, the movie stacks the decks by putting a cemetery in the place of the Bailey Park development. Sorry, George, but without you, people still would have died in Bedford Falls - of boredom.

Mary winds up in a place worse than the cemetery - “she's just about to close up the library!" - where she wears glasses and dresses like Paula Poundstone. It's an insult to working women.

Do yourself a favor and just go read the whole hilarious thing.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Inside vs Outside

Here are two great quotes that go great together. The first is from an essay about Korean culture's propensity do define the world in terms of 'in' (friends and family, allies) versus 'out' (strangers)

It turns out that all sorts of things in Korean society are explained by this distinction between "in" and "out." . . . "In and out" explains why Korean students are so clean in their homes and so likely to throw trash in the campus streets - the street is outside their area, the territory of non-persons. The distinction is reinforced by taking off shoes in a house; the house is clean space, while "out" is for shoes, dirty.

Although the author, Yonsei University professor Horace Underwood, focuses specifically on students, the analysis extends to all aspects of Korean society. At the risk of offending some, I would say it makes Koreans excellent friends, only so-so citizens and, when you're walking down the streets of Korea, particularly aggressive obstacles. To extend Underwood's 'in and out' analysis, one has to go no further than the typical Korean home, the high-rise apartment building, which looks like this on the outside

and this on the inside.

Korean homes are typically very clean. The floors clean enough to eat off, unnecessary clutter usually banished to drawers and well-organized shelfs.

The outside of the typical Korean apartment block practically screams to the average American "Yes, we sell crack!", filthy and never ever cleaned, with rust stains streaking the walls and small cracks spackled over in white, emphasizing the building's age, (perhaps to drive down the apartment prices), never letting on the tidy little family lives going on therein.

Now here's a quote from a Slate article about the various re-edits of the Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
We see suburban Muncie as a sprawl of carefully arranged, nearly identical houses stretched out beneath a starry sky. But within those tidy houses, Spielberg finds chaos. Clutter piles on top of clutter in a family room that can barely contain its family. Conversations overlap but fail to drown out the television's blare. And at the center of it all is a man already half-mad from all the commotion, unable to focus on his toy trains and stuck with a family unable to appreciate the whimsy of Pinocchio.

According to Underwood, Spielberg's protagonists would be living inside out.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

9 out of 10 top pages at Conservapedia homosexuality-related

Chapeau doff to the Party Pooper. Excluding the main page of the conservative alternative to Wikipedia, every single page in the top ten is related to homosexuality. The list:

1. Main Page‎ [1,916,218]
2. Homosexuality‎ [1,586,114]
3. Homosexuality and Hepatitis‎ [517,543]
4. Homosexuality and Promiscuity‎ [421,339]
5. Gay Bowel Syndrome‎ [396,018]
6. Homosexuality and Parasites‎ [388,730]
7. Homosexual Couples and Domestic Violence‎ [373,363]
8. Homosexuality and Gonorrhea‎ [331,743]
9. Homosexuality and Mental Health‎ [292,841]
10. Homosexual Agenda‎ [271,023]

Gay Bowel Syndrome? Seriously, I can not imagine what use conservatives could possibly have for detailed information about the mechanics of gay sex.

Well I've done the legwork and read the page on Gay Bowel Syndrome just to see what these conservatives are so interested in. The first half of the page is a rather dry description of the syndrome (constellation of symptoms). The second half of the page is a description of the history of the term, the perception of the term as one carrying a negative bias by gay activists, and the efforts to have the term removed from med school textbooks. Nothing particularly titillating.

Still it is wierd that every single page in the top ten except the main page is about homosexuality.

I wish they included more statistics on their website. I would love to know what page 11-20 are.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

An unbelievable travesty

Courtesy of the most unpleasant Michael Savage. The military is asking wounded soldiers unable to serve out their commitment to give back a portion of their signing bonus. According to the article
[Jordan] Fox was seriously injured when a roadside bomb blew up his
vehicle. He was knocked unconscious. His back was injured and lost all vision in his right eye.
A few months later Fox was sent home. His injuries prohibited
him from fulfilling three months of his commitment. A few days ago, he received a letter from the military demanding nearly $3,000 of his signing bonus back.
That's $3,000 out of $10,000, by the way. I can only assume that this is some sort of a mix-up, because I would hate to think that this is actual policy.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Wars of Blood and Faith, condensed, part one

I am printing here some of the more provocative and interesting passages from Ralph Peters' 2007 book Wars of Blood and Faith. I am a bit pressed for time, so here's part one.

Clausewitz had it Backwards
p. 39-40 [I]t may be our predilection for prolonging even the most wretched peace that ultimately makes our wars so bloody. After a century of Euro-American conflicts, it requires little effort to make the case that the quickest way to inspire a shooting was may be to cling to the dream of peace in our time. . .Idealistic American communists abetted Stalin's crimes while conservatives insisted that Hitler wasn't our problem. . .The massacres at Srebrenica can't be blamed on Serb militias alone--Europe's pacifists were the enablers. Darfur screams, while we stop up our ears.

p. 40 Along with our nibbling at Clausewitz, we also snack on a few crumbs from Sun Tzu, without any real comprehension, that "to win war without fighting is the highest form of victory." Our assumption is that the maxim has a pacific, if not a pacifist, sense: victory without bloodshed! Hurrah, hurrah! Such an interpretation is profoundly wrong. Sun Tzu's primary emphasis in that passage isn't on avoiding battle--that's secondary--but on winning by alternative means. The distinction is critical. Sun Tzu would have found Western peacekeeping operations incomprehensible: avoiding battle and losing.

p.41 The conundrum is that our military strength makes our policy-makers lazy. Neglectful of other instruments and means of national power, they inevitably find themselves forced to resort to military solutions.
The Chinese understand perfectly that policy is an extension of war beyond the crudities of the battlefield, and they act upon the insight skillfully. The Russians grasps it, too, if less coherently . . . (as with the depth-of-winter gas shut-offs to Ukraine and then Georgia). The French have acted as if engaged in comprehensive warfare with all other parties for four centuries, failing only because their means were never commensurate with their exaggerated ambitions.

p.43 Brilliantly, the Chinese have managed to harness the greed of influential elements within our own business community to prevent the implementation of policies by Washington that might reduce China's artificial trade advantages and limit our own self-inflicted vulnerabilities. By allowing a relative handful of American corporations to grow rich, the Chinese have paralyzed our government's ability to defend our workers, our industries, and our economy. We have reached the point where lobbying veers into treason. The Chinese view our relationship as a war conducted through nonmilitary means. Under such advantageous economic conditions, they are perfectly happy to refrain from shooting.

p44 Saudi Arabia, for example, has engaged in a merciless religious war against the West for more than three decades, yet it has not only done so while convincing our national leaders, Republican and Democrat, that we're "friends," but has managed to gain the protection of America's military on the cheap, even as it refuses meaningful cooperation with our forces. To preserve the profits of a handful of multinational oil companies, we protect a repellent, throwback regime that willfully created Osama bin Laden and his ilk.

p 45 The target of the suicide bomb isn't really flesh and blood--it's the video camera, that powerful, postmodern "other means" of securing a military advantage without possessing a military.
By refusing to instill a warlike spirit in other fields of our national policy, we only make "real war" inevitable.

The Hearts and Minds Myth
p50 Self-righteous journalists love to claim that the first casualty of war is the truth, but that's a self-serving lie; the first casualty of any form of violence is reason, that weakest and most disappointing of learned human skills.
We are, indeed, engaged in religious wars--because our enemies have determined that these are religious wars. Our own refusal to understand them as such is just one more debilitating asymmetry.

p 51 We must get over out impossible dream of being loved as a nation, of winning hearts and minds in Iraq and elsewhere. If we can make ourselves liked through our successes, that's well and good. But the essential requirement for the security of the U.S. are that our nation is respected and our military feared.

p52 We need to be tough on ourselves. Begin by listing the number of religion-fueled uprisings throughout history that were quenched by reason and compromise--call me collect if you find a single one. Then list the ethnic civil wars that were solved by sensible treaties without significant bloodshed. Next, start asking the really ugly questions, such as: Hasn't ethic cleansing led to more durable conditions of peace than any more humane approach to settling power relations between bloodlines? Shouldn't we be glad when fanatics kill fanatics? Is there a historical precedent for coping with violent religious fanatics that does not include bloodshed to the point of extermination?

The Myth of Immaculate Warfare
p54 The siren song of techno-wars fought at standoff range makes military solutions more attractive to political leaders than would be the case were they warned about the war's costs at the outset.

p56 [T]he impressive -in-theory capabilities of the latest weapons cloud the vision of military planners, leading them to focus on what the systems can do instead of concentrating on what needs to be done. Rather than buying the weapons we really need, we twist the conflicts we face to conform to the weapons we want to buy. The resulsts are flawed war plans based on unrealistic expectations--in short, Iraq

Politically Correct War
p62 You can trust to kinds of officers: those who read a great deal and those who don't read at all. But beware the officer who reads just a little and falls in love with one book. A little education really is a danegrous thing.

A thought from Ralph Peters

We may be impressed that terrorists ad criminals manage to use out technologies against us, but it is a parasitic use, imitative, not creative. A cell phone held to the ear does not mean a modern mind is at work on the other side of the eardrum.
from Peters' 2002 book Beyond Terror, page 13

A thought from J.R.R. Tolkien

A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man's distant forefathers had obtained their bulding material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: 'This tower is most interesting.' But they also said (after pushing it over): 'What a muddle it is in!' And even the man's descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: 'He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.' But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.

How to be creative, Gwen Stefani style

According to the above Gwen Stefani ad for HP, these are the steps involved in creativity:
1. Like Kingston. Absorb its culture and bastardize it for an American audience, thereby becoming a celebrity.
2. Go to a hotel in a foreign country. Japan, let it be noted, is taken, so don't even think about trying to be inspired there. Look out the window at the glittering skyline. The less insight you have into the lives being lived in the city you're in, the more likely you are to be inspired.
3. Walk through a middle class neighborhood. Creativity can't be turned on and off like a faucet, despite what some might think, so just be open to everything you see.
4. Take what you've seen in the foreign country home. The less your countrymen know about the country you were in, the better.
5. Present what you've seen in the foreign country as a product of your own creative mind.
6. Sit back and wait for the call about an HP ad deal to come in.
7. Repeat

Sunday, November 18, 2007

John Hodgman and the infinite mediocrity

I have been ruminating on the continued existence of John Hodgman and the role he plays in contemporary pop culture. I have been able to sum up my impression of him in the following way.
At any point in time, the comfortable middle class with a smattering of liberal arts education look to satisfies their urge to be edified, either for legitimate reasons or as a class reinforcing exercise of their leisure time. They will put up with an amazing amount of boredom in the name of edification. This stems from the belief that unmitigated emotion is crass or base, and that pleasure in particular is a dish best served cold. Thus feelings like anger, embarrassment, and sadness are distrusted and must be intellectualized (see This American Life). While this level of staid introspection suits emotional experiences like anger which are well-served by deep thinking, it is ill-suited to comedy. The result is a dry, almost puritanical version of comedy, usually referred to as 'humor', in which attempts at easy laughs are eschewed as below the 'humorist, and are replaced by more gentle humorous observations or humorous conceits embedded in intellectual subject matter. The humor is received with chuckles and knowing groans. These are responses, rather than reactions, a way to show solidarity with the uniformly middle- and upper middle-class and overwhelmingly white audience or simply a means of giving the needy-seeming humorist what he or she seems to want. The latter is a very typical reason for the laughter, since the audience typically respects the humorist rather than genuinely being entertained by him or her, and wants to win their respect by 'getting it'. Humor as such is essentially a social signalling device, and the sad, hollow laughter of recognition that it evokes are like the nocturnal ululations of bullfrogs: ephemeral, annoying, and ultimately pointless.
Notable practitioners of 'humor' are The Firesign Theater, Lily Tomlin, and especially Garrison Keillor (born, wouldn't you know it, Gary Keillor). In our own time the hottest star on the rise on the Chortlin' Circuit (I coined this term in this here blog post, by the way; feel free to use it but do credit me) is John Hodgman. Like Dave Eggers (whom I have never read) and others involved in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern (of which I know nearly nothing), John Hodgman's stock in trade is old-timey phraseology. It would appear that we have the Simpsons to blame for this unbelievably restricted subgenre of humor. His aggressively uncharismatic persona and wry, obscure comedic bailiwick flatters his fans by acknowledging their specialness and broad frame of reference. Hodgman's book, The Areas of my Expertise, features the following subtitle
An Almanac of Complete World Knowledge Compiled with Instructive Annotation and Arranged in Useful Order by Me, John Hodgman, a Professional Writer, in the Areas of My Expertise, which Include: Matters Historical; Matters Literary; Matters Cryptozoological; Hobo Matters; Food, Drink, & Cheese (a Kind of Food); Squirrels & Lobsters & Eels; Haircuts; Utopia; What Will Happen in the Future; and Most Other Subjects; Illustrated with a Reasonable Number of Tables and Figures, and Featuring the Best of "Were You Aware of It?", John Hodgman's Long-Running Newspaper Novelty Column of Strange Facts and Oddities of the Bizarre
Now given what I've said above about humor, it is clear from the book title that, old-timeyness aside, Hodgman's book is relatively wacky and jokey compared to the work of the typical humorist. I submit that this is because, just as the majority of low-brow people gravitate towards the lowest of the low, so does the vast majority of middle-brow people gravitate toward the lowest of the middle. Hodgman represents the cachet of a McSweeney's without any of the challenging fonts, the feeling of superiority over belly-laughers that accompanies Garrison Keillor without the droning boredom. Hodgman's book is essentially the most respectable possible knockoff of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

America's Credulity Straining Challenge

I am watching the inexcusable America's Psychic Challenge on Lifetime. It's about exactly what you think it is (to quote that guy from that irritating iPhone commercial), except the 'psychics' ride from psychic challenge to psychic challenge in a Cadillac Escalade. The most amazing thing about the show is the way that the participants couch their guesses and handle their failures. Before every challenge the psychics either offer caveats ("I'm not an empath, so I've never done this kind of challenge before."; "This is the first time I've tried remote viewing.") and afterwards they offer their excuses ("As soon as I started the challenge I got a really strong father figure coming through from the other side and he had a message to deliver, and really that's the most important thing."; "I initially got a message telling me to choose number one, but then I got interference from number five and I went with that one instead, but number one was calling to me the whole time.")
I strongly suggest this show to anyone who's interested in scientific skepticism. After all, you've got to know your enemy.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Talking away the pain

Is there any semantic debate more silly and telling than the one that surrounds the question of how to describe the Al Qaeda operatives working in Iraq? Are they Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), or Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia? I hear the argument that the Bush administration unfairly refers to AQI as just Al Qaeda in order to unfairly exaggerate their importance.
According to the Weekly Standard

Al Qaeda In Iraq is part of the global al Qaeda movement. AQI, as the U.S. military calls it, is around 90 percent Iraqi. Foreign fighters, however, predominate in the leadership and among the suicide bombers, of whom they comprise up to 90 percent, U.S. commanders say. The leader of AQI is Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian. His predecessor, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, was a Jordanian.

Wikipedia clarifies

The group is a direct successor of al-Zarqawi's previous organization, Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. Beginning with its official statement declaring allegiance to the Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network in October 2004, the group identifies itself as Tanzim Qaidat Al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (QJBR) ("Organization of Jihad's Base in the Country of the Two Rivers").

OK. So Al Qaeda in Iraq is a part of Al Qaeda, ideologically and structurally. Whether they have all the resources of the greater Al Qaeda body or not is unclear, but that they will fight for Al Qaeda proper's aims is not. Nobody complains when someone calls prostate cancer 'cancer' because prostate cancer is relatively treatable, as if they were trying to exaggerate the seriousness of the situation.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Great point well made

From an article from the New York Times Magazine by Michael Lewis:
It is still O.K. for the analysts to lowball their estimates of corporate earnings and plug the stocks of the companies they take public so that they remain in the good graces of those companies. The S.E.C. would protest that the analysts don't actually own the stocks they plug, but that is a distinction without a difference: they profit mightily and directly from its rise.

Actually, the whole article is a great read, put it on your to-do list.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Aliens in America is good

In my humble opinion. The characters are great and the comedic targets are unique. For example, straight-arrow Pakistani exchange student Raja doesn't usually break the rules, but naturally he accepts the necessity of vandalizing a locker in the name of his host-sister's honor. It is also the first prime-time network show that I've ever seen that featured an extended scene of someone getting ragged on in front of the whole school for 'wanting' his sister. Hilarious.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The worst television show in existence . . .

. . . hands down, is Brothers and Sisters. Literally makes my skin crawl to watch it. I weep for all the people out there thinking they're watching something 1)relevant, 2)'smart', 3)topical, 4)genuine.
It's the smarmiest, most self-satisfied, juvenile and crass thing on television and the people who watch it are either too false or too invested in the show to acknowledge its aggressive idiocy.

Clinton can't win

You've heard it before, a few times I bet. Well let my voice be one more in the choir saying that Hillary Clinton has got no shot at the White House, and that the worst thing that the Democrats could possibly do is put her up against a Republican candidate. Unless a right-leaning third party candidate appears to split up the conservative vote.
Hillary Clinton can not possibly win because she is unbelievably reviled. I've heard people, several people, tell me that they will only vote if they can vote against Clinton.
You've heard this, you know this. Just helping you let it sink in.

Desperate Housewives death watch

First Gabrielle can't get rid of her slutty, penniless mother.
Then Brie can't get rid of her mother-in-law.
Then Gabrielle couldn't get rid of her mother-in-law.
Now Lynette can't get rid of her slutty, penniless mother.
Seems like there would be more than one possible relationships for these people to have with their parents, but, you know, who am I to say so?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Golden Girls movie fantasy cast

I just got disc one of the Golden Girls season 1 from Netflix and watched the pilot.

It got me thinking about the Golden Girls movie. Naturally it would be about the late eighties Golden Girls anachronistically thrown into early twenty-first century Miami, and it would have a cameo from Mario Lopez, but who should star? Here's who I would cast.

Dorothy Zbornak - Nicole Kidman. I would say anyone would have to agree that she's the only actress out there right now with the gravitas to play Dorothy.

Sophia - Laura Linney. Think about it, Estelle Getty was only two years older than Bea Arthur, and yet she both resembled her and made a perfect mother to her. Have you seen Laura Linney lately? Total Nicole Kidman's withered mother material.

Rose - Renee Zellweger. Where would Bridget Jones wind up if she had been born and raised in Saint Olaf, married and subsequently outlived her husband? Miami, naturally.
Blanche Devereau - Tyler Perry. Nobody says 'oversexed southern older woman' like Tyler 'Madea's Family Reunion' Perry.

Stanley Zbornak - John Leguizamo. Oh Stanley, wasn't divorcing you enough to get you out of poor Dorothy's life? Apparently not. Plus die-hard Golden Girlsheads (or Geedgeheads, as they are sometimes called) would be up in arms if he didn't at least make an appearance.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

I am now a licensed driver

Please don't ask me to drive you to the airport.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

When 'You're the man now, dog' isn't enough

Mayor Bloomberg brought out his plan to reward low-income students in cash, cell phones, and minutes for doing well on a series of tests he was attacked on all sides. Some pointed out an apparent conflict with his previous city-wide ban on cell-phones in schools (hardy-har-har). Other gentle souls said that the plan undermines the message that education should be for education's own sake. I call these people out-of-touch bourgeois bleeding-heart fatcats, the same people that want to bring organic and slow foods to America's slums to combat the obesity epidemic and probably still believe that Mozart makes you smarter. Cart before the horse people, in other words.
Case in point: Diane Ravitch takes exception to the plan claiming that it
is insulting to poor kids and poor families. It assumes that they won't do the right thing for themselves unless the government pays them to do it.
This argument is emotional and faulty. The mayor's plan makes no such assumption. Clearly from their points of view education is useless, pointless, a waste of time and features no long-term benefit. What it does assume, with very good reason, is that people do things because they are rewarding in some way, i.e. people respond to incentives, not a radical position to take. Maybe chubby-cheeked suburban children have the luxury of looking at their prosperous parents or neighbors and seeing the tangible rewards that education can bring. I would argue that many of the poorest students have little idea of what value education can hold for them. Once the mayor gives them a tangible incentive to study, they may well find that studying is rewarding in other ways, financial as well as intellectual. After all, education, intellectually stimulating or not, is a form of work, whether one is paid in marketable skills or personal satisfaction. Ravitch goes on to say
This plan, moreover, is unethical and immoral. It makes the basest possible assumptions about human behavior and acts on the behaviorist view that people are motivated only by hard cash.
Not even a little bit is this unethical or immoral. Base or not, the assumption that people are motivated by potential gains (not mere cash) is a very solid assumption to make. Is it insulting to offer someone money for goods and services? Are we making base assumptions about carpenters and electricians when we assume that they've built houses motivated only by hard cash? Ravitch goes on
From the point of view of schooling, this plan is wrong because it tells kids that they should study only if they get extrinsic rewards. Yet what educators are supposed to do is teach kids to have a love of learning, to encourage them to improve their lives by enlarging their knowledge of the world. If they are going to study only if someone pays them, what happens when the payment ends?
Should one study something that offers no reward of any kind? Should one study, for example, the names of every cheese in existence without tasting said cheese or ever being able to use this cheese-name-knowledge to one's own gain? Standing among connoisseurs of cheese, this cheese-name scholar would be left saying "Mmm, Roquefort, I've heard of it. Sounds kind of hard, like a rock. Rock-fort, hahaha. What's that? It's moist and crumbly, with rich blue veins, you say? Hmm, food for thought, pun definitely intended."
Now what use could having a 'love of learning' possibly have to children who see absolutely no value in having an enlarged knowledge of a world that seems completely out of their reach. Why learn about the pyramids in Egypt, The Merchant of Venice and the ring-tailed lemur when you can scarcely afford a trip to the Bronx Zoo, let alone a plane ticket out of the country or a night at the theater. This line of argument is pure suburban brood-hen clucking and completely out of touch with the way real people actually think and act.
As unsavory as it may sound to many white-gloved cogitators, people are educated primarily so that they can perform jobs that will add to our nation's economy and hopefully allow them some form of upward mobility. Bloomberg sees a situation - parents and children who fail to see abstract value in the education being offered to them - and remedies the situation by making the rewards more tangible. Money that may have otherwise gone to fund English departments for kids who hate to read and history departments for kids who feel no connection with the past is instead used to lure kids into achieving more. It's like churches hosting bingo games. Come for the cash prizes, stay for the fellowship and eventually the religion.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Thomas Torquemada and the Ticking Timebomb

The 'ticking timebomb' issue that gets brought up so much these days when discussing interrogation techniques is, to me, the late-term-rape-pregnancy-abortion hypothetical of the age. By focusing on this one special case, we've effectively lobotomized the debate on interrogation techniques. The circumstances stipulated - impending doom unless we get a piece of information from someone we have in custody - are so dire, so out of the ordinary and so remote from the vast majority of what intelligence gatherers actually do that any conclusion or stance that one could draw from thinking about them would, almost by definition, resist generalization to intelligence gathering as a whole. That's why I scrupulously avoided this hypothetical in my last post on defining torture: it is a red herring, a sort of reductio ad absurdum that distracts one from what intelligence gathering is actually about.

Besides, professional interrogators, now with years of experience under their belts, would be unlikely to use techniques that would be so likely to give bad intel. Unless they were under political pressure to do so, right? Like, for example, doctors in certain states being forced by law to make unscientific caveats about the after-effects of abortions before performing such procedures. I mean, a professional dedicated to performing their job well wouldn't do something so wreckless and counterproductive unless they were mandated to do so by the powers that be, right?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Torture and tortured verbiage

There's been a lot of hot wind blowing around about waterboarding, 'simulated drowning', stress positions, and torture in general these days. Much of this talk seems to me to be as usual missing the whole point. People talk about the aptness of the name waterboarding. It seems to me that one reasonable definition of waterboarding would be 'the sensation of drowning without (normal) danger of dying'. That sounds very cruel and unusual to me.
Stress positions, as well, seem to be very uncomfortable and may have the potential to do lasting physical damage. I have heard the lasting physical damage complaint issued time and time again in the press, but I think that to even bring it up implied a definition of torture that includes as a necessary component lasting physical harm. While waterboarding may be done with no lasting permanent harm done, so can rape, but this does not make rape, even when done in controlled conditions and supervised by psychologists, an acceptable form of interrogation.
So we find ourselves with a concept, torture, that is ill-defined and murky in the public and legal imagination. People's immediate reaction is to go with their default reaction. Liberal hearts around the world gush in empathy with the hooded and besodden victims while eye-for-an-eye justice hungry conservatives feel a rush of hot vengeful blood to the head and rush to the defense of harsh interrogation techniques. Neither side gives a thought to whether these techniques are torture, why they are torture, or whether they work. People who view every morcel of information on the war with intense scrutiny seize upon memes like 'harsh interrogation tactics don't work' and blindly trumpet them without a second thought to their veracity. The other side points to successful results of harsh interrogation with the same blind faith in information that bolsters their own practically inborn opinions.
That's just weak. I equate the interrogation debate to the abortion debate, in that I think both are matters for professionals to figure out without letting politics get in the way. If harsh interrogation doesn't work, why would professional interrogators use such methods? Because know-nothing people in the administration are pushing them for intel that simply isn't there or isn't available, or because the administration wants to send some sort of method? For every mook on the street in America to have an opinion about something they know nothing about is nothing new, but in this case the amount of scrutiny given to a necessarily unsavory-looking task like intelligence gathering techniques is bringing a lot of very embarassing attention to our government. Honestly, it's not even a matter of knowing how the sausage is made anymore. If we open up the slaghterhouse doors to observation by every knucklehead in town we're going to wind up with no knockwurst at all.