Friday, June 29, 2007


And speaking of racism - it seems that Isaiah Washington was fired for being black, rather than for calling someone a "faggot."

Of course, it's ridiculous for ABC to fire Washington from Grey's Anatomy just for calling someone a "faggot." And of course, it's totally unfair that they're firing him despite his obviously sincere attempts to make amends: appearing in public service announcements, going to sensitivity training, agreeing not to speak to the press until the incident was resolved despite the fact that the "injured" party was allowed to appear on Ellen DeGeneres. And all of this is not to mention that Washington has written essays before condemning homophobia - long before Grey's Anatomy even existed, in fact.

But is it racism? Hardly.

Check out some of the ridiculous things he's saying:

"Well, it didn't help me on the set that I was a black man who wasn't a mush-mouth Negro walking around with his head in his hands all the time. I didn't speak like I'd just left the plantation and that can be a problem for people sometime," he says. "I had a person in human resources tell me after this thing played out that 'some people' were afraid of me around the studio. I asked her why, because I'm a 6-foot-1, black man with dark skin and who doesn't go around saying 'Yessah, massa sir' and 'No sir, massa' to everyone? It's nuts when your presence alone can just scare people, and that made me a prime candidate to take the heat in a dysfunctional family."

Guess he missed that whole Don Imus thing then. 'Cause from where I sit Imus looks pretty damn white, and he got fired for exactly the kind of slip of the tongue that Washington got fired for. And, like Washington, Imus made a pretty sincere effort to apologize - including even (and this, folks, is torture in the Ninth Circle of Hell if I've ever heard of it!) allowing Race Pimp and Hypocrite Number One Al Sharpton on his show to give him a public dressing down! If even THAT can't fix a brainfart, then it's hardly surprising that Washtington's sensitivity training wasn't enough to keep the hounds at bay either.

The bottom line is that this stuff has gone way too far. There is, simply put, NOTHING about the word "faggot" that is offensive enough to be worth someone's job. If the faggot in question can't suck it up and get on with his life, then I can't help but think there're some seriously unresolved self-esteem issues in his own mind that he needs to fix first before he goes pointing the finger at everyone else. Probably, in fact, Washington is right that he's just exploiting the whole incident as a career booster. It wouldn't be the first time, and it certainly fits the profile this time.

But I think there's a light at the end of this tunnel - and that's that this defacto zero tolerance policy on discriminatory speech in the public forum will start to eat its own. Imus and Washington have to go, fine. But the more and more this happens, the more and more people will realize that apparently no amount of contrition is enough to make up for the utterance of even a single ill-thought phrase of prejudice. And if that's the case (as it demonstrably is), then people will stop bothering to apologize. And when they stop apologizing - well, then I think we'll see a real sanction of the victim effect - whereby the networks will find that it isn't as easy to fire someone who doesn't say "sorry," both on legal and on public image grounds. And that, I think, is the beginning of the end for hypersensitivity.

The "hostile workplace" crowd has subtly overplayed their hand. It will take a couple of years for the backswing to be noticeable, of course, but I do believe the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. I would say "I'm only sorry Isaiah Washington had to lose his job in the process," but I'm honestly not. Anyone who looks at the world around him the way it is today and HONESTLY thinks racism against black people ever has anything to do with ANY firing anymore, let alone firing for the reason Washington was fired - well, is just a retard, no other way to put it. So see ya, Washington, and don't let the door hit yer ass on the way out! But I hope everyone else in Hollywood learns the right lesson from this --- namely: if you slip up and say something racist or homo"phobic," for God's sake DON'T APOLOGIZE!!! They're going to can you anyway - and it works out better for me, you, and everyone else if you go out with style!

Sometimes they do get it Way Right

Alright, well, given all the abuse I heaped on the Supreme Court yesterday, I should probably give them kudos for what they did today. The case is Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District(05 US 908) - and it deals a decisive blow to affirmative action.

The issue is very simple. Some white kids were denied a petition for enrollment at nearby schools because they were white, and admitting them would have upset the "racial balance" of the school. In other words, it's an open-and-shut racial discrimination case. The Supreme Court was divided 5-4 - but they came down on the right side: denying someone admission solely on the basis of that person's race is illegal discrimination - even if the defendant's race is "white."

One especially cool point about the ruling in this case that has (at the time of writing) gone unnoticed by the press so far is that it not only deals a blow to Affirmative Action, but also to the faux "rationale" currently advanced for its support - the so-called "diversity" movement. From the syllabus:

Even as to race, the plans here employ only a limited notion of diversity, viewing race exclusively in white/nonwhite terms in Seattle and black/"other" terms in Jefferson County.

Which is to say, the Court accpets actual diversity as a laudable goal, but they've struck down the "diversity" smokescreen that the NAACP uses to promote its racist agenda. "Diversity" is no longer legal doublespeak for "handouts for blacks."

Other gems include:

The school districts have not carried the heavy burden of showing that the interest they seek to achieve justifies the extreme means they have chosen --- discriminating among individual students based on race by relying upon racial classifications in making school assignments.

Now THAT is absolutely crucial - roughly the line I've been waiting all my white life to hear: that racial discrimination against people of ANY ethnicity is "extreme means." I think what's frustrating about the whole Affirmative Action debate is the almost flippant way it's assumed that whites (and men, and especially white men) can "just deal" with whatever's thrown at them. As if there aren't plenty of poor and fairly downtrodden white people too! Not all, not most, not even many white people play golf at the club weekly. Most of us are not that different from the rest of the population, really. Shocking as this may be to the NAACP's organization of racial gang-bangers, denying a white person entrance to a school of their choice is every bit as harmful now as it was when they were doing it to blacks way back when. We also (gasp!) plan our careers around getting into certain schools, etc., and tend to view it as a setback when we're not allowed in, and we'd really like to think that if we're denied it's because the other candidates are better, not because we were born the wrong color.

Indeed, all this should sound very familiar to the NAACP crowd - and that's because it's precisely the same evil. Racism is still racism when you're doing it to white people.

And yet another cool bit:

The fact that Seattle has ceased using the racial tiebreaker pending the outcome here is not dispositive, since the district vigorously defends its program's constitutionality, and nowhere suggests that it will not resume using race to assign students if it prevails.

That's nice. That's nice because it's a good rejection of discrimination on principled grounds. Programs in which race could be the deciding factor aren't even allowed as temporary measures!

The dark cloud on the horizon, though, is this:

Although remedying the effects of past intentional discrimination is a compelling interest under the strict scrutiny test ... that interest is not involved here because the Seattle schools were never segregated by law nor subject to court-ordered desegregation.

Um...OUCH! In other words, race can still be a decisive factor in school assignment in places that have historical baggage. Which means Affirmative Action will be alive and well whereever it can be used as "payback," never mind that the victims weren't involved in the original offense. So this isn't a total victory for the good guys. But it's still a decisive battle, and I'm not going to complain. This is a better ruling that we probably should have expected - and it IS a decisive blow to the idea of Affirmative Action, even if it doesn't eliminate the problem as completely as lots of us would ideally have liked. I'll take it.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Another Zinger from our Nine Best Friends of Liberty

The Supreme Court today finally handed down a decision in the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case (informally known as Morse v. Frederick (06 US 278) to those of us who like to get down and groovy with the politicking).

Here's why it sucks.

What annoys me about this case isn't the supposed "free speech in schools issue." I largely agree, in fact, with Thomas' Concurrence that Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (393 US 503) may have been wrongly decided - that students do not, in fact, have broad free speech rights of any kind while at school. But the point is that Joseph Frederick wasn't at school when he rolled out his "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner. That school was going on across the street is irrelevant: the school (plainly) does NOT have the authority to regulate speech outside of its campus or off-campus school-related activities. Not even if the "offending" party is a regular student at the school. Not even if the "offending" party is a regular student at the school currently truant within view of school property. Think about it - if it hadn't been Frederick but rather two college kids, would anyone at all allow the principal to confiscate the banner, as happened here? Of course not. The First Amendment protects such displays! There is no footnote to the First Amendment that says "Oh, wait, Congress can so too make laws abridging the freedom of expression if some schoolkidz might see it." No.

Frederick was within his Constitutional rights to skip school and roll out a silly banner with his (still unidentified, to his credit) friends that read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" across the street from a school event.

What's paricularly irritating to me about this ruling, though, is that votes seem to have turned on whether the justices accepted Frederick's claim that the sign was "merely a prank" or whether they considered it "advocacy for illegal drug use." Now, that in and of itself is a good sign. After all, if it's "just a prank," then Frederick's First Amendment claim is irrelevant (since pranks are not protected public speech I guess - at least not pranks in the broad sense) - so this would seem to be the sort of thing the Court should consider.

What makes it perverse in this case is that they seem to have gotten it backward. That is, the Justices who voted with the majority (i.e. there was no First Amendment violation) seem to also be the ones who refused to accept it as "just a prank." Here, in fact, is the Court's wording:

Held: Because schools may take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use, the school officials in this case did not violate the First Amendment by confiscating the pro-drug banner and suspending Frederick.

And from Stevens' dissent:

I agree with the Court that the principal should not be held liable for pulling down Frederick's banner. See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U. S. 800, 818 (1982) . I would hold, however, that the school's interest in protecting its students from exposure to speech "reasonably regarded as promoting illegal drug use," ante, at 1, cannot justify disciplining Frederick for his attempt to make an ambiguous statement to a television audience simply because it contained an oblique reference to drugs. The First Amendment demands more, indeed, much more.

Um...HELLO??? The whole bleeding point of the First Amendment is to protect unpopular opinions from government censure. So...

What Tinker specifically says about students' First Amendment rights is that they have them - but that these rights are balanced, in school, against the rights of other students to an environment conducive to learning. The specific wording:

A prohibition against expression of opinion, without any evidence that the rule is necessary to avoid substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others, is not permissible under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

So... Well, it's pretty damn clear, right? The school may NOT censor Frederick's banner because it advocates illegal drug use: that is an opinion and protected by the Constitution (provided you think Tinker was rightly decided, I mean). The school may only censor Frederick's mode of speech if it is disruptive. (For those not in the know - Tinker was a 1968 case in which students were suspended for wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. Since armbands are not disruptive, the Court ruled 7-2 that they were protected free speech - in effect, that schools may only censor speech when the speech in question is disruptive, but never based on its content.) So this is exactly backward. Those who think this is "merely a prank" should send the case away as inconsequential and let the disciplinary action stand (for local authorities to decide whether school authority extends beyond campus for such issues). Those who think, however, that it is expressing an opinion should then consider whether it was expressed in a disruptive manner.

Unfortunately, the Court seems to think that the content of Frederick's banner is somehow relevant to the whole affair. Let's play this again, shall we?

...schools may take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use...

And Stevens, in dissent:'s interest in protecting its students from exposure to speech "reasonably regarded as promoting illegal drug use..."


I mean this is clearly an outrage. The First Amendment protects political speech in general ... oh, bucept when it's about smoking pot? REALLY???

And (not that this is technically relevant, but...) it's MARIJUANA, for cryin' out loud! You know, the drug that's less harmful than cigarettes or alcohol but somehow illegal anyway? If there's one recreational drug on BigGuv's hitlist that clearly doesn't belong there it's this one, people! It's not like Frederick's advocating the use of anyting, you know, damaging or addictive.

Anyone who thinks that the War on Drugs is not causing serious and probably irreparable harm to our framework of Constitutional liberties need only read the syllabus to this case to see how quickly public drug hysteria skews our priorities. The right to free expression is among our most precious. And yet here we have the highest-ranked, most authoritative experts on Constitutional law in the land ruling that it was NOT violated BECAUSE the speech in question happens to be "objectionable." If that isn't scary fucked-up, I just don't know what is.

Of course, the proper ruling here is that the school has no business censoring anything outside of its property (with a possible exception for field trips, of course). And of course, the banner is pretty clearly an attention-grabbing prank more than a political manifesto - so this case is already generating attention all out of proportion to actual events. But once you've (wholly implausibly) accepted it as both "political speech" and "on-campus," then the issue is whether it is disruptive - NOT and NEVER and NO WAY what "opinion" it happens to be advocating.

I would have (reluctantly) accepted a ruling that identified it as on-campus political speech and upheld the suspension on grounds that the sign was disruptive (which it pretty clearly is, after all). But to identify it as on-campus political speech and uphold the suspension not because it was disruptive, but because the message is "bad" - well, that's a clear violation of a citizen's Constitutional liberties. But then, these are (largely) the same jokers (switching sides on who's good and who's evil on this one) that gave us the disastrous Kelo v. City of New London (04 US 108) abomination. So outrage though it may be, it is hardly surprising.

Friday, June 22, 2007


In a series of emails with a friend recently, the subject of absinthe came up (again). (No, it wasn't Mr. Tweedy - who, I have noticed, never posted a followup to his entry on his absinthe purchase of half a year or so ago. I assume this means it wasn't really to his taste.)

Absinthe is interesting to me not because I want to try it (it contains anise, the flavor of which I dislike), but because I suspect the (largely international) ban on it is one of the precursors to our current disastrous drug policy. It's the original wrongly maligned substance, really. For whatever reason, the public just didn't like the crowd that used it, and they (rather, one Dr. Mangan) concocted a series of experiments which purported to show that it was more harmful than other alcoholic drinks. In fact, at 136 proof it is - but because of the higher alcohol content, not - as was widely claimed - the thujone. It has been demonstrated that thujone isn't even hallucinogenic (as was believed at the time), and in any case there isn't enough of it in absinthe to have deleterious effects on human drinkers.

But public hysteria over thujone plus the all-too-convenient case of a man murdering his family after two glasses (never mind that he also drank a lot of regular alcohol that day, and never mind that literally millions of others were consuming just as much or more absinthe daily without murdering ANYONE) was enough to get it banned in Switzerland in 1908, and (most) everyone else quickly followed suit.

And that's it folks. One series of bad (probably deliberately so) experiments, and one sensationalized murder case, and suddenly the rights of millions to indulge in a not-particularly-harmful recreational beverege were gone.

It's sad that it's so easy. And it's also ironic, I think, in a country as religious as the US. All polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of our fine citizens believe in a ghostly, otherworldly soul completely separate from our bodies controlling our actions. The body tempts, but the soul controls - that's how it goes, right? So why the complete lack of faith in people to make mind-over-matter willpower-driven decisions? It just doesn't make sense to me.

Absinthe's legal status in the US is questionable; no one seems to know exactly what the laws are (Customs and the FDA have different positions). But in it's way that makes it especially scary - because you just don't know where you stand or what your rights are when you choose to drink it. In any case, I think absinthe bans probably set the stage for our current drug policy - because it taught the fascists just how low a bar the public really set on these issues.

I frankly don't know why we spend hundreds of millions each year trying to control things like pot and absinthe that are demonstrably no more dangerous than other things currently legal. And I frankly also don't know why the general public fails to see the nasty side of all this War on Drugs nonsense. It isn't just that we spend so much money fighting this lost cause - it's more that we throw people in jail left and right (perversely in the name of "helping" them!!!) for doing nothing more harmful than lighting up a joint (or sipping absinthe) in the privacy of their own homes. It's time to stop - and to recognize that what people put in their individual bodies is none of the government's business (and please spare me the argument about drunk driving and the like - NOTHING about legalizing drugs would mean that we'd have to let intoxicated drivers off the hook for causing injury or property damage!!! We could even tighten the penalities for actual damage done if that would make people happy).

In this spirit, I link the coolest public service announcement I have seen in a long time. Way to cut through the fog on the bogus War on Drugs...

Furatobu Neko

This is a pretty amazing picture of a cat in mid-jump! The author claims it was just lucky - which I suppose it must've been; how else would you really get such a shot? But even so, it's a really good photo - check it out!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Nifong Disbarred

GREAT NEWS!. Mike Nifong, the prosecutor of the infamous Duke Rape Case, has been officially disbarred. Apparently Nifong himself admits that the punishment is "appropriate," and his defense attorney appears to have taken the tack in his closing statement that Nifong committed "multiple, egregious mistakes," but "not intentionally." In other words, the case was open-and-shut.

The players' attorneys will apparently also be filing criminal contempt charges next week. Here's hoping that works out for them.

Slandering Ron Paul

No good deed goes unpunished. Thanks to Ron Paul shaking up the pre-election season by talking truth to power at the Republican debates, he's become something of a minor celebrity in the pop commentariat circles. It won't last, of course. I rate Paul's chances of actually winning the nomination pretty bleak. And I even have to reluctantly agree with Brian Doherty's prognosis that he won't even get an RNC chair position out of the deal. He's this cycle's Howard Dean, only less so.

But that doesn't mean he isn't attracting his share of unfair criticism while the dog's still huntin', and today I found a sterling example. The link goes to the Suicide Girls take on him - charmingly titled "Fuck Ron Paul."

I get why they don't like him. His record on abortion isn't exactly encouraging for a pro-choicer (and that, indeed, is one of my main problems with him as well). He's got a 0% lifetime rating from NARAL - a definite red flag. But I think it's actually not as bad as they seem to think. One of the problems with the abortion debate, as I've said before, is that so many people fail to separate the issue of whether Roe v. Wade was rightly decided (it was not) with whether abortion should be legal. This is unfortunate for people like Paul, whose position on abortion is actually a lot more nuanced than his NARAL rating would indicate. True, Paul is personally pro-life, advocates the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and would vote to outlaw abortion in his home state - but he is actually opposed to federal abortion laws of any kind (pro or con), something for which, given the skewed terms of the debate, he rarely gets credit.

But I guess the Suicide Girls are of the stripe that will "take what they can get" politically - so Roe v. Wade is just RIGHT because it gives them what they want (safe legal status for abortion throughout the country), never mind that wrongly decided cases can set piss poor precedents that come back to bite you in the ass some other way (see Unintended Consequences, Law of). And since I guess abortion is (one of) their main issue(s), I don't expect them to ever like Ron Paul.

Is it too much to ask, though, that they be fair to him when they trash him? Let's see how this works.

Let me start by saying Ron Paul is a racist. There is just no way around that fact.

Ah, yes, this again. Well, fair enough. Paul definitely said some eyebrow-raising things oh, you know, 20 years ago. Ergo he must continue to hate black people with a firey passion to this day.

Or not. I mean, look, if John Edwards can decide that he was wrong to vote for the war as little as 4 years ago, I think it's really OK for Ron Paul to have made some mistakes in the 80s. But OK - I'm not sure (nor is anyone) what exactly the rules of the commentary wars are these days, but whatever they are making "statements that can be construed as racist" at any point in your professional life is decidedly against them. Paul should have known better, even way back when, and I guess he's off the island for this resaon.

I still think it's telling that Suicide Girls feels the need to start its tirade with this little tidbit, though. It's never a good sign when you have to start off with character assasination before diving into the issues. And that's even doubly telling here when we're talking about people who, I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess, probably think that President Clinton's marital infidelities and possible taste for sexual harassment are irrelevant to his ability to perform his job as prez.

I think it's worth going through some of these horrible things that Paul said.

Opinion polls consistently show that only about 5% of blacks have sensible political opinions, i.e. support the free market, individual liberty and the end of welfare and affirmative action.

OUCH! Yup, that's definitely against the Rules of Commentary. Such a flagrant violation, in fact, that this will easily disqualify him from the White House. But now, in the interest of general honesty, look more closely. Is it really in reality racist? I'm not so sure. Certainly the wording is crude, insensitive. Certainly the joke is flippant. But all it really says is that black people are not Libertarians, which is about as true as a political statement can be. Demographically speaking, there just isn't a whole lot of support for dismantling the welfare state in the black community. If it's racist to point out even this basic and obvious truth, then I suppose demographic political information of any kind is not kosher, eh? And why, indeed, should Ron Paul bend over backward to cater to a slice of the population that votes Democrat no matter what? The black vote is about as solid a block as you can get - so solid, in fact, that black community Democratic leaders have even started complaining about it (because the DNC knows it can take the black vote for granted). What I see here is not racism so much as frustration. Admittedly, no politician deserving of the presidency would make a statement this tactless (he has to represent the United States at negotiation tables and diplomatic functions when elected, after all). But c'mon, this is burning steam at the fact that the solid black pro-socialist voting block stacks elections against him. Elections are market-driven like anything else. If your demographic group wants politicians to be nice to them, they need to at least dangle the possibility of support.

Although we are told that it is evil to be afraid of black men, it is hardly irrational. Black men commit murders, rapes, robberies, muggings and burglaries all out of proportion to their numbers.

Again, stating a demographic fact. The crime stats speak for themselves. The only reason this is "racist" is because it's against whatever bizarre politically correct rules we play by these days. Back over here in reality, though, if you have overwhelming statistical evidence that a particular segment of the population is significantly more criminal than the others, then it is, in fact, OK to say so. Like it or not, the black male's criminal image isn't going anywhere - politically correct force shield protecting him from having to hear about it from politicians or no - until he stops being significantly more criminal that everyone else.

And, yes, again, unfortunately for Ron Paul, by the Rules of Commentary you're simply not allowed to say this. If you do, commentators are allowed to call you a racist with impunity. (If anyone read my blog, no doubt there would be a comment accusing me of same within minutes of the posting.)

So Suicide Girls can get away with this. But one has the impression that there are more important things to talk about all the same.

The mainstream media has yet to be able to track down a copy of the newsletter because it was largely only sent to nut jobs. Ron Paul still has copies, but he refuses to make them public because of the horrifying words contained in those pages.

Well, duh! He's running a political campaign here and might, oh, maybe, want it to be about his positions on issues rather than his dirty laundry from the 80s?

Oh, right, and then they quote this other allegedly scary lines, which have nothing to do with the race issue we're supposedly talking about, but never mind:

Why do we need the federal government? There's no Cold War and no Communist threat. Many other nations are breaking into smaller and smaller pieces. The centralization of power in Washington occurred in a different time. Why not think about getting rid of the federal government, returning to the system of our Founders, and breaking up the United States into smaller government units?

Why not indeed? I completely fail to see what is "scary" about this. It's simple common sense, really.

Or this:

The Earth Summit is the creepiest meeting of politicos since the first gathering of Bolsheviks. Officially known as the UN Conference for Environment and Development, it will be held in Brazil in June; bad guys from all over the globe will attend.

Again, hardly tactful, but right on point. The Earth Summit is indeed a place where Socialists go to plan an ersatz world government where they get to decide what wealthy nations do with their money. "The Environment" is indeed just an excuse to bring in a trans-national welfare state by stealth. Kudos to Paul for speaking truth here.

Now, having included these two quotes that have nothing whatever to do with race, the article picks back up where it left off:

The dude is a fucking racist. Case closed. Oh, it's not? Well then lets also take a look at the company he keeps.

At which point we get a laundry list of as many as THREE - count 'em, THREE - "unsavory" political organizations Paul has spoken to over a 30-year political career. After which point they've run out of steam and have to resort to noting that David Duke supports Ron Paul, as do a handful of commentators on Stormfront's website. And THIS is supposed to be our open-and-shut case that Paul is a racist? Because some commentators on Stormfront like him? Note the tricky sleight-of-hand here. We're told that the "company he keeps" is going to close the case that Paul is a racist, but then we can't even keep to THAT topic. Paul isn't "keeping company" with Stormfront or David Duke, you moron. That these people happen to like him has essentially nothing to do with anything, in fact, since I'm sure, for example, that the Nation of Islam will support Barack Obama just 'cause he's black.

By this point, note, the article is halfway finished, and we're still in character assassination territory, and no longer even doing THAT fairly.

Ron Paul is a Libertarian! Weeeee! That means he would like to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency, Social Security, Medicare, the Department of Energy, the Federal Reserve, the IRS, aid to foreign nations, and the Department of Education as well as remove the US from the United Nations and NATO. Man, that would be so great. Maybe we could also get rid of everyone's cars and we could ride around on magic unicorns.

HUH? What does getting rid of government agencies have to do with getting rid of people's cars? In any case, this isn't an argument, nor does it ever become one. The bulk of the second half is just a litany of similar jabs. There's a quote from Paul on some issue, and then our "commentator" responds by calling Paul some kind of name (he's selfish, or greedy, or immature, or what have you), but never once does he actually spell out a rational case against the position in the quote.

The closest we come, in fact, is this bit on Social Security. They quote Paul saying:

We didn't have it until 1935. I mean, do you read stories about how many people were laying in the streets and dying and didn't have medical treatment?...Prices were low and the country was productive and families took care of themselves and churches built hospitals and there was no starvation.

To which comes the highly intelligent:

Fucking read a book, man. How stupid are you? Ever hear of a fucking Hooverville?

Brilliant. At least in this case our commentator bothers to quote someone with a counterargument, though - showing us that he has (at least in theory) "read a book" about this issue. The trouble, I think, is that he seems to have only read this one book. There is a huge diversity of opinion about whether the New Deal program did anything to alleviate the Depression - with the consensus, as I understand it, actually in the "no" camp. There are plenty of books from competent economists and historians outlining Paul's case against Social Security and every other New Deal program on the books, in fact. A useful thing for our commentator to do would be to read some of them and tell us why they're wrong. In any case, it's disingenuous in the extreme to note the existence of "Hoovervilles" and assume that ends the discussion on the Depression, FDR, and whether the New Deal was of any benefit to anyone!

But let's skip down to the slander. When we finally get on to talking about some real issues, the author can't even properly represent Paul's position.

For example:

He does has a delightful voting record. He voted against the war. Wow! Holy shit! What a maverick! Doesn't mean very much when you realize he votes against everything.

Oh please. That hardly disqualifies Paul's anti-war vote. It isn't as though he flippantly votes against everything because he's too thick to figure out a position and decided to just "go with no" or whatever else. He votes against everything because most of what comes across the table he considers unconstitutional. Paul believes in a smaller government - and since most bills exist to create ever more government, it's really not surprising that he generally opposes things. In other words - his vote against the war was about as far from flippant or shallow as you can get. It was based on a coherent philosophy - i.e. we could count on him to do similar things if elected. This stands in contradistinction to, say, Johns Edwards and Kerry, who vote for the war when it's cool and against it when it's not. A particularly telling line here:

He voted against hurricane relief funding, even though most of his district is on the Texas gulf coast.

In other words, he has integrity. You know what you're getting when you vote for Paul because he sticks to his principles regardless of how much in his personal interest it might be to do otherwise.

But then we get some outright lies:

For instance, in July of 1999 he voted to ban gay adoptions in DC. He has also voted to ban partial-birth abortions and to ban Family Planning funding in US aid abroad. (Remember, AIDS will work itself out) Paul also supports a constitutional amendment to allow prayer in schools.

No, Paul supported a 1997 amendment to forbid banning individual prayer on school property. What they inconveniently leave out is that he turned around in 2001 and voted AGAINST temporarily allowing prayer in schools during the War on Terror. To see that these positions are consistent, all one need to is actually read the text of the amendment Paul supported. It specifically PROHIBITS official school prayer. Sorry folks, but here it is:

To secure the people's right to acknowledge God: The right to pray or acknowledge religious belief, heritage or tradition on public property, including public schools, shall not be infringed. The government shall not compel joining in prayer, initiate or compose school prayers, discriminate against or deny a benefit on account of religion.

Let's play that last bit again, shall we? "The government shall not ... initiate or compose school prayers." I mean, that's even clearer than the origianl First Amendment, no? Instead of just saying "Congress shall make no law...," it actually specifically forbids official school prayer. All this amendment says, really, is that people are allowed to pray on their own on school property. Now, personally I'm not all that gung ho about this because I don't see the big issue. Right, the First Amendment doesn't prohibit people praying on their own on school property, and the courts that have ruled otherwise have clearly misinterpreted it. But I don't see an issue substantive enough here to require an amendment to fix it. So in that sense, I agree. My beef is simply that it's disingenuous in the extreme to say things like "Ron Paul supports a constitutional amentment to allow prayer in schools" and let your readers get the impression that he's a pro-school-prayer religious nut, when in fact the ammendment he supports would make it clearer than ever that there are to be no official prayers in schools. Ditto this crap on gay adoption. True that Paul voted against gay adoption in DC, but he's also consistently voted against constitutional amendments prohibiting gay marriage (twice, in fact). So fine, cherry pick your issues if you like, but Paul's record on gay civil liberties isn't anything like what's implied here. And I LOVE how earlier their complaint was that Paul votes against everything, only now it's supposed to mean something truly evil when he votes against Family Planning Funding in US Aid abroad. Ron Paul votes against ALL international aid, you moron! OF COURSE he also voted against this kind of aid!

In any case, we (Ron Paul supporters - I stand by my earlier statement that I'll vote for him if he gets the nomination) should batten down the hatches and get ready for this because this seems to be the typical response to Paul on any issue. I have yet to hear anyone actually talk to him about his positions. What we get instead tends to be this kind of incoherent mudslinging, bordering on slander.

It's moot, of course. Ron Paul isn't going to win anything, let alone the White House. And for what it's worth, I'm not comfortable with his past statements on race either. Though I largely agree with the rational sentiment (namely, it's a shame that the black community votes as a block for the continuation of failed welfare state programs, and we should be allowed to draw attention to the racial disparities in violent crime rates in public without automatically being accused of being racist), I fully acknowledge that the way in which he expressed these opinions is enough to raise suspicious that he just doesn't like black people. Ron Paul is far from perfect, this is clear. But if that's so clear, why the need for these kinds of juvinile arguments? I mean, since Ron Paul isn't going to win the Republican nomination (let alone the White House!!!) anyway - where is all this vitriol coming from? Don't you usually save that for someone who is an actual threat?

Someting about Ron Paul is scaring Democrats, and I'm really curious to know what. I mean, they can't HONESTLY be afraid he'll steal votes from them? Can they?

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Twilight Zone

I think I'm in The Twilight Zone. Click on the link, and it will take you to the Rotten Tomatoes page for Knocked Up. You will see that it has a 91% freshness rating - and no less than 97% from the so-called "cream of the crop."


I saw it yesterday, and I can say from firsthand experience that in fact it's torture. I won't say that watching "Knocked Up" is as painful having your testicles zapped with a car battery because that wouldn't even be an analogy. Watching "Knocked Up" literally is strapping your testicles to a car battery - or at least, the effect on your psyche is the same.

I can't believe this is being passed off as "dude humor." For one thing, to call something "dude humor," it first has to be humor. And only then, when we know it's humor, do we check to make sure it also appeals to dudes.

Well, "Knocked Up" fails to meet this first requirement in spectacular fashion, and that's already enough of a case against it that I could reasonably stop typing now. It just sucks in general to advertise something as a "comedy" and then fail to include funny scenes. And what sucks even worse than that is including token funny scenes with well-worn jokes lamely executed. And what's even worse than THAT is including such scenes sparingly in an otherwise thoroughly unfunny "comedy." I'll leave it to the reader's imagination which path of suckitude "Knocked Up" travels. But Jesus Christmas - honestly - I mean is there even a single person alive who still thinks slacker potheads are funny? Or that it's "edgy" when a Jewish actor playing (super-shocker!) a Jewish character refers to his afro as "Jew conditioner?" Or that it's still funny to look a 5-year-old girl straight in the eye and tell her that "prick" means "penis?" Sounds like a movie that should've been made 20 years ago, right? When all this stuff was still flirting with taboo? But EVEN THEN it wouldn't have been funny, because the execution is just so damn lazy. Take the scene where everyone in Ben's apartment has pinkeye. I guess we're supposed to fall on the floor laughing because they all got it from farting on each other's pillows. You know - classic "dude" humor, right? Well, *ahem*, yes, except that they didn't bother to build up this joke AT ALL. We open the door to find someone with pinkeye and are treated to nothing other than - DA-DUM! - expository dialogue explaining that pinkeye comes from fecal matter in the eye. Aren't you supposed to do that several scenes ago? So it's, like, funny on its own when someone shows up with pinkeye? Alright, that out of the way (check!), no less than ALL of the roommates come to the door and they all ... wait for it ... they ALL have pinkeye! Get it? 'Cause they're like so super-immature that they ALL farted on each other's pillows! I mean, fuck me in the ass, they might as well have just had someone standing in front of the theater holding up an "audience laughs" card. (It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again...) The sad thing is, it's not even hard to fix this, right? Aside from dropping the "pinkeye comes from fecal matter in the eye" seed on earlier soil, they could've - oh, you know - staggered the appearances of the various characters with pinkeye. No reason they ALL have to show at the door, right? And instead of the stock pothead explanation for why the last man standing (yes, OF COURSE there is a "last man standing" who didn't get pinkeye from a pillow - or at least thinks he didn't) has red eyes too, they could've, oh I dunno, thrown us for a REAL curve? Or else allowed someone to escape without getting it, but had a clever explanation for this. Or SOMETHING. Point being - options abound, and the writers picked up none of them. And so it goes for two miserable, someone-please-slam-my-left-hand-into-a-churning-blender hours.

As for the second point, any "dude" who apprectiates this movie needs his penis license revoked. Enjoyed it? Male, are you? Yeah, well, you're gonna hafta give that back, I'm afraid. No sex for you until you grow up and stop hating yourself. I mean, honestly, I don't think I've seen a more blatantly anti-male movie since The First Wives' Club. It's not just that all the normal feminist bromides (you know, women live in clean glass palaces in the sky and concern themselves with real-world problems like raising children and furthering the species while men all dick around smoking pot and going nowhere all day) are out in full force. Oh no. In addition to a double-helping of this tired old crap, we get unapologetic double standards in obesity-inducing portions for desert. FOR EXAMPLE... When Pete is caught - NOT in bed with another woman (as his wife was expecting) - but having a night out with the guys playing fantasy baseball, it never even occurs to the snooping wife while dressing him down (for playing fantasy baseball!!!) that she, in fact, has been going out to clubs whenever she feels like it in low-cut dresses encouraging men to hit on her (i.e. doing something MUCH closer to cheating than he was...). Nor, when she finally can't get into said club for free ahead of the line anymore on account of her age, does she stop to think for a minute that men have been actually waiting in line all those years (which, really, is all she's asked to do). Nor, when she still thinks Pete is cheating on her, does the fact that she's not even sleeping with him suggest itself to her as a possible cause. Right - so Pete's not allowed nights out to himself, but she's damn well allowed to go to clubs and flirt whenever she wants, not make an effort to keep the romance in her marriage alive and lay ALL the blame for this at her husband's feet, and then it's suposed to be a flagrant social injustice when the club won't let her in for free anymore on account of her no longer being hot, never mind that she's been an active participant in this same (newly-discovered) "injustice" for years? It's too much for the rational mind to handle. But the worst double standard, really, is in the main story itself. Alison gets to dress Ben down for being irresponsible at the slightest provocation (which usually amounts to being anything less than positively ecstatic that he's about to father a child he didn't plan on with a woman who doesn't seem to think that much of him), and yet there's nothing irresponsible about getting drunk and sleeping with a guy you don't respect or even find all that attractive??? Honestly, what the fuck? Oh, right, I think she's supposed to get soooooo many brownie points from the audience for deciding not to abort that that just makes up for everything. See - responsible, right? She's raising the child? Well, right, but never mind that it totally ruins another person's life for her to make this decision. Never mind that the child has a father who wasn't planning on having it any more than she was. Never mind that she has a glamorous, high-paying job, a sister with a family, and is in every way capable of raising this child on her own, whereas the father is not. And never mind that the father wasn't even consulted for her decision - let alone that it doesn't seem to occur to anyone at all that he has a right to some input here.

The whole movie is old-fashioned in that annoying, prudish, third-wave feminist way. Women can have jobs, can have total say over their reproductive decisions, and can sleep with whomever they want for whatever whim of a reason - so we're all very "liberated" until we need a man to stick around and be a father. Then, all of a sudden, we find that sex roles haven't changed after all. Convenient. Which isn't to say, of course, that Ben is completely off the hook for failing to strap down on their one-night stand. It's just that, well, a more sensitive treatment wouldn't have killed anyone. The prospect of his staying at home and being a Mr. Mom (and working on his website out of the home, for example) isn't even raised as an issue. Nor, more importantly, is the idea that this woman would be fine without him. She's beautiful and successful - if she doesn't like him, why not just have the child, tell him to fuck off, find herself a better man to help raise it, and get on with her life? But MOST importantly, the decision to keep the child isn't treated as a "decision" at all. It's just the "right thing to do." As if. So much for liberation. If this movie is chauvinistic in any way - as some critics have (implausibly) tried to claim, then it's because the woman decides to raised the child with this loser like a "good girl" when so many better options are available to her.

But never mind any of this, in fact, because the setup is hugely implausible to begin with. First of all, women like her don't sleep with men like him - ESPECIALLY not when they're out on the town getting drunk to celebrate their promotions! What's he even doing in that club, anyway? We saw how long the line was - and him and his cash-strapped friends aren't exactly the patrons the establishment is looking to admit! She's hot, she's rich, and she's AT AN UPSCALE CLUB. Can't she find a better jockey? But even if we buy that she chooses him, we're really expected to believe this whole condom failure story? That is, she insists he strap down, but doesn't (a) have a condum of her own to give him, (b) doesn't notice he's not wearing it (???), (c) doesn't help him put it on, nothing? And then on top of that, we're expected to believe that the thought of abortion just never entered her mind? There's no struggle here, REALLY? I mean, no matter how legitimately pro-life you may be (and let's face it, she's doesn't strike us as the type, exactly - she picks up losers in clubs for one-nighters, after all!), you still STRUGGLE with the option of abortion in this kind of situation, right? Or at the very least adoption? And we're really expected to buy that once she knows all about him, the kind of life he leads and exactly what his prospects for success are - that she continues to want him to act as father? REALLY? AND... Despite his complete lack of money or prospects, we're expected to believe that he feels qualified to be a father and, in fact, actively wants to be one? Sorry, the whole thing just doesn't work. None of this happens in the way it would have happened (and often does happen) in real life.

A lot of people have apparently hailed this overbaked bit of crap as prophetic for our times or something. It captures the sensibilities of the modern generation? It's a nice thought, but I'm not even sure what the point here is, exactly. The message seems to be some weird mixture of sexual liberation and an anti-abortion tirade. That is, casual sex is A-OK - and it won't even ruin your life if you get pregnant! There are some struggles, but they're all illusory, really - babies are automatically and without a doubt or question the best thing that can happen to anyone. So it's sort of like the Pro-Life Action League tanks up on ecstasy and goes to the disco or something. JUST. DOESN'T. WORK. A useful sort of message here would be something like: get your reproductive philosophy in order NOW rather than later because pregnancy sneaks up on you. That would have been a fitting message for the modern generation, I think. You know, we're all tolerant now - so abort, don't, it's your choice - sleep around or don't, it's your choice, blah blah. Just be sure you know what you're gonna do when the completely predictable consequences come knocking and you'll be fine. THAT would've been a good message. But the whole problem here, really, is that this movie can't decide whether it wants to be a comedy or not. If it does, it needs to make light of the subject like all good comedies do. If it wants to face the subject square-on, it needs to do a more serious and sensitive treatment. Give us some real characters who deal with problems - rather than having the woman's string of rash decisions (sleep with loser, fail to abort pregnancy with loser at risk to job, decide to stay with loser just because he's the biological dad) all work out by dumb luck alone!

I dunno. I suppose I've made my point. This movie, plainly and simply, hasn't got a single redeeming quality. It's not funny, it has an incoherent story, an incoherent set of moral expectations, and it sends absolutely the wrong message to boot. And did I mention it's not funny? Skip it, please.

[Un(?)intentional casting irony: I'm pretty sure the techie who first notices Alison is pregnant is Parker - Buffy's ill-advised one-night stand from Season 4. ]

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Best Bond

I am frequently annoyed with Roger Ebert - not because he's consistently bad, but because he's right often enough for it to be that much more galling when he's wrong. This is one of those times.

It's a long story how I ended up reading his review for The Living Daylights, so let me just say that I think it sums up nicely (and completely unintentionally) what's right about this movie and wrong about the rest of the miserable Bond series.

First, full disclosure: I haven't seen Casino Royale yet, though I'm given to understand it's quite good. So it's possible that in a couple of days (when I've seen it), I'll be able to say I honestly liked three Bond films. At the time of writing, I only really like two of them: the aforementioned The Living Daylights and On Her Majesty's Secret Service. More about this latter some other time.

Most casual Bond fans will object that these are the two least "Bond" movies in the series. But that is rather the point: the series as a whole is a fraud. And it's a fraud for exactly the reasons that Ebert gives for finding The Living Daylights unimpressive:

[newly-cast Timothy] Dalton is rugged, dark and saturnine, and speaks with a cool authority. We can halfway believe him in some of his scenes. And that's a problem, because the scenes are intended to be preposterous. The best Bond movies always seem to be putting us on, to be supplying the most implausible and dangerous stunts in order to assure us they can't possibly be real.

No, Ebert you moron, that's what SUCKS about the "best" Bond movies. That's why they're a waste of time: because they can't get over themselves. I mean, this is a really perceptive comment in its way - it just happens to draw the wrong conclusion. It's true that most Bond movies go out of their way to be preposterous - just to remind you that none of this could possibly ever happen in reality - and that's the problem with them. A good thriller is meant to entertain, not flatter the audience's faux sense of sophistication by allowing it to pat itself on the back for its post-modern sensibilities! What you want in a good thriller is - well, granted, not something realistic on its face (the whole point is that it's a fantasy, after all), but something that can at least distract you for a time. If it constantly draws attention to the fact that it's not real, then how can you possibly be distracted? The magic of movies is that they're an all-out assault on the senses. We get completely, passively, drawn in and can forget, for two hours, that what we're seeing isn't actually happening. I'm not aware of a single movie-goer who likes to be constantly reminded he's in a dirty theater with smelly other people watching color patterns on a screen!

In the sense Ebert points out here, the Bond movies are like that annoying friend everyone seems to have - the one who's a geek, but kinda ashamed of it, and so is constantly apologizing for the shit he likes. I think: if you're going to be a geek, just be one. And, well, if you're going to make a thriller movie, just make one for cryin' out loud! Spare me all the sophistico bullshit, please!

I guess my real objection here is to the (unstated, but strongly implied) idea that thriller movies have to be enjoyed with wink and an apology. They do not. They can be enjoyed in the same way any movie can be enjoyed; there is no golden rule saying, as one of my ex-girlfriends (and rabid Bond film fan) maintains, that they have to be evaluated solely on the basis of their explosions. Maybe this is shocking to the "I'm ashamed to enjoy myself in public" crowd - but a good thriller movie happens when you combine a good (read: complicated) action-oriented plot with believable characters. That's exactly what The Living Daylights gives us.

Dalton's Bond is the best I've seen mostly because he really is James Bond - i.e. the Bond Fleming wrote about, not the imposter Sean Connery played. Bond in the books - in addition to being a suave womanizer (Connery got the womanizer part right by accident - he happens to be really sexy. What most people seem to think of as "suave" with him, though, just seems goofy to me.) - is cold. He's had a hard life and lacks the ability to form real connections with people. THAT's what makes him a badass - and what makes it believable that he's so completely self-reliant. Connery's Bond might as well have sprung from the foamy sea fully-formed on the half-shell. I'm not sure what it is, but it certainly isn't human.

Bond is also meant to be neutral, ordinary. From a Reader's Digest interview with Fleming (source: James Bond: The Man and His World by John Murray):

I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find, 'James Bond' was much better than something more interesting, like 'Peregrine Carruthers' . Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure - an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a Government Department.

Dalton's understated, gritty-yet-aloof performance captures this perfectly. Sean Connery, by contrast, might as well walk into the room naked juggling basoons. The whole problem with him is that you can't forget he's there, not even for a little bit.

As for the plot:

The plot of the new movie is the usual grab bag of recent headlines and exotic locales. Bond, who is assigned to help a renegade Russian general defect to the West, stumbles across a plot involving a crooked American arms dealer, the war in Afghanistan and a plan to smuggle a half-billion dollars worth of opium. The story takes Bond from London to Prague, from mountains to deserts, from a chase down the slopes of Gibraltar to a fight that takes place while Bond and his enemy are hanging out of an airplane. The usual stuff.

Um, NO. WRONG. It isn't "the usual stuff," nor is it a "grab-bag." It true that the plot is made up of "recent headlines and exotic locales," but unlike the other Bond movies, these things are blended seamlessly and believably here. There is no megalomaniac trying to blow up the world with a laser from space. Everything that happens seems plausible, and there are good reasons why they end up in the exotic locales they end up in. For once in a Bond movie, I feel like the events on the screen might almost have really happened. Granted, it's not completely free of plotholes. (For example - Koskov tells Kara about Whittaker, even though he knows she's going to be picked up by the KGB for questioning when he disappears? Really???) But for a blockbuster thriller, the story here is surprisingly convincing.

One thing that isn't usual in this movie is Bond's sex life. No doubt because of the AIDS epidemic, Bond is not his usual promiscuous self, and he goes to bed with only one, or perhaps two, women in this whole film.

Actually, this has nothing to do with the AIDS epidemic - it's simply being true to the novels. In real life, Fleming's Bond only slept with one woman per novel as a rule (this was broken only after the movie franchise started - and then it was usually limited to two). That's what Dalton's Bond does here too - there's a central "Bond woman," and he may or may not have slept with the woman on the boat during the opening teaser.

As the only "Bond girl" in the movie, d'Abo has her assignment cut out for her, and unfortunately she's not equal to it. She doesn't have the charisma or the mystique to hold the screen with Bond (or Dalton) and is the least interesting love interest in any Bond film.

Well, yes and no. I thought she was fine, myself. It's true that she's "ordinary" compared to the others - but that's sort of the charm of it. But I won't pick nits here - this may just be a matter of personal taste. Ebert's right that a lot of the others were flashier, but I would add that most of them were completely ridiculous as well. Whatever else she is, Kara is a believable love interest (as was Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service).

There's another problem. The Bond films succeed or fail on the basis of their villains, and Joe Don Baker, as the arms-dealing Whitaker, is not one of the great Bond villains. He's a kooky phony general who plays with toy soldiers and never seems truly diabolical.

And yes, I completely agree. Again - I didn't mind so much because all the "great" Bond villains were so over-the-top it was hard to take them seriously. I prefer Brad Whittaker to the likes of Drax and Blofeld. But it's certainly true that a bit more flair with Whittaker would have helped.

Of course, Ebert is cheating a bit since Whittaker isn't the only villain. There are at least two more - Koskov and Necros - and each is quite interesting in his way. But why let the actual film get in the way of what you want to write, eh?

But the real outrage here isn't the misrepresentation - it's the assumption that the Bond concept is doomed from the start, and that any attempt to deny this will result in failure:

The correct tone for the Bond films was established right at the start, with Sean Connery's quizzical eyebrows and sardonic smile. He understood that the Bond character was so preposterous that only lightheartedness could save him. The moment Bond began to act like a real man in a real world, all was lost.

There's an arrogance here - because Ebert assumes the audience doesn't know that the Bond character is preposterous and has to be constantly reminded of it. In fact, I think few, if any, moviegoers are under the illusion that the stuff on the screen is possible in reality. There's a reason why "don't try this at home, kids" is a cliche: there are maybe as many as 12 people in the real world who believe Superman can fly, and the warning is wasted on them anyway (for the obvious reason that they think people can fly).

A moviegoer goes into the theater to be decieved. There's a tacit contract here. The moviegoer will pretend to believe for the duration of the film IFF the moviemaker will help him along by providing a convincing illusion.

But in "The Living Daylights," there is a scene where Bond and his girlfriend escape danger by sliding down a snow-covered mountain in a cello case, and damned if Dalton doesn't look as if he thinks it's just barely possible.

In other words, Dalton is doing his job. I agree that the scene was preposterous, but Dalton's ability to sell it anyway is a testimony to his acting ability. Ebert should be praising this performance - but instead he's asking Dalton to hedge his bet???

Playing an action scene tongue-in-cheek, the way Connery always did, is cheating, end of story. ANYONE can take something preposterous and let you know it's preposterous. That's not impressive, and you don't need an actor to acomplish it. It's sort of the way any old idiot off the street can flub a magic trick. It doesn't really take skill to get halfway there and then "accidentally" trip on the trap door! What takes skill is keeping the illusion alive - and that's what Dalton does.

Granted, the writers weren't necessarily on board for Dalton's "realistic" take on Bond. Worse than the scene mentioned above is one where a spinning car's rim cuts a circle in the ice covering a lake, sinking the police trooper on top of it. I had a lot of trouble buying this one, and it's unfortunate that the franchise was still suffering from this sort of hangover when Dalton finally graced the screen for them. A sensible criticism of this movie is that it didn't divorce itself more from the franchise's goofy past. But I still think it gets a solid 3.5 stars for honest effort, even if it's flawed here and there.

What it does NOT suffer from is the lack of humor Ebert derides it for. This is, in fact, its biggest asset.

Self-parody rarely works, and when it does it's usually because it's embedded in something that's overall meant to be serious. We like people who can crack a joke about themselves in good faith, but we also know that people who do nothing but are painfully insecure. On the whole, James Bond is to action thrillers what Southpark is to comedy - generally fun and entertaining, but damned if it doesn't take things too far. Southpark's nevereending quest to make sure they've offended absolutely everyone equally is what comes back to bite them in the ass - because shit isn't funny anymore if it isn't at least a little bit true, if it doesn't draw at least a little blood. When you make sure comedy is "fair," you've sort of missed the point.

Connery-era Bond is like that too. I mean, on the surface it's the ideal male fantasy: there's this confident dude who plays by his own rules and gets all the ladies, plus kicks some serious ass in his time. But this fantasy is useless if you can't take it seriously at least for a little while - and I have always suspected that this, more than Connery, is the reason why so many girls like Bond. The films make it blindingly obvious that no such man exists (or if he did he would be a total goofball), and that makes them feel safe.

I liked The Living Daylights BECAUSE it was believable - at least for the most part. And for those scenes where it wasn't? Well, at least Dalton has the class to suck it up and play it straight. People don't pay to watch thrillers so they can be smugly above them. Well, alright, a lot of people do - but they're missing the point. As Ebert is here. It was a good movie - the best of the Bond movies, in fact. It's what the franchise should have been all along.

I don't want to completely trash Bond, though. Sean Connery was a gas, but he definitely has screen presence (as well as "it," as Fleming's mistress reportedly persuasively put it at his screen test), and several of the movies he was in were a lot of fun (Goldfinger and Dr. No, of course!). But without the all-star player, the whole thing turned to shit, and that says a lot about the concept. Aside from possibly For Your Eyes Only, did Moore even make a good film? Twice the goofiness, none of the sex appeal. Dalton came to fix all that; too bad things didn't work out.

It's been 20 years almost to the day (July 31) since this movie was released. Time to reevaluate, and acknowledge it for the gem it was.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Some Thoughts on Cross-Linguistic Reading Comprehension

Something I heard three years ago has come up again in conversation recently - the idea that Japanese speakers read faster than English speakers on account of the writing system.

Crash course in Japanese writing (for those who don't already know). Japanese is really three writing systems smashed into one. Two of them are phonetic - based on syllables, and one is logographic - a system of characters borrowed from Chinese. The phonetic systems are used for inflection, words you don't know the characters for, and loanwords or foreign words (sometimes also for emphasis, in a manner similar to itallics in English). They use all three systems in mixed fashion in sentences. The professor who made this claim - that Japanese read faster - based it not on the phonetic systems, but rather on the idea that characters are easier for people to recognize than strings of alphabetic letters.

This is one of those weird things where I have a hunch the overall conclusion is right, but I'm nevertheless skeptical about how they got there and what it all means. Japanese researchers (sorry, but it's true) in general have a bad habit of publishing lazy research that "proves" that some aspect or another of the Japanese culture or language is generally superior to the rest of the world - so just on general prejudice I wouldn't be at all surprised to find problems in these results. But even if the results are right (and as I said, I have a hunch they are), I can think of any number of confounds off the top of my head that might go further in explaining the results than rashly concluding that characters are "easier to read" than strings of letters. To name a few:

  1. Practice Makes Perfect - Since the Japanese writing system requires a lot more effort to learn than a straight alphabetic system, I would guess that the Japanese in general spend more time practicing it during the critical period. This may account for the greater rapidity with which they apparently read more than the design of the system itself.

  2. Assessment Issues - I would be really interested to know what counts as "comprehension" in this task. It's important to say - because it seems plausible to me that it would be easier to "skim" in Japanese, but that English readers might pay more attention to content detail in general than Japanese readers. This is beacuse the Japanese writing system divorces sound and meaning to a great degree - and so readers are more free to pay selective attention to the islands of "meaning" (the first character of each compound) in the text and skip all the "irrelevant" hiragana grammatical information. Since characters provide "skimming" anchors, and since the skimming task itself is uncomplicated by the need to pay parallel attention to phonetic form in Japanese, it may be that Japanese readers have marked advantage at skimming simple texts but are handicapped at reading more complex texts that require greater attention to detail. We would need to know how comprehension was assessed in the relevant experiment in any case.

  3. Methodology Problems - Of course, anyone with scientific training is going to want to know how they controlled for effective literacy level across native speakers of the two languages. This is nontrivial - since what counts as "literacy" in Japanese is a much more slippery concept than what counts as "literacy" in an alphabetic system.

Anyway, a friend and I started discussing this in some detail (involving Chinese, though, which I am currently learning, and not Japanese), leading me to eventually make the claim that Chinese characters can be thought of as "boxed letters" and her to counter that even so, Chinese people do not read them by "unpacking" them, but rather by looking "at the whole."

Well, sure, I overstated my case. Chinese readers are indeed trained to see characters as individual units, and they learn them by copying them hundreds of times. Notwithstanding, I'm skeptical of claims that things can be identified "as a whole."

Surely the process of identifying a Chinese character is largely analogous to that of identifying an alphabetic word, no? That is, you're presented with a jumble of details, and you focus on details in turn, using them to eliminate competing candidates, until you reach a point where you have eliminated all candidates (and thus failed to recognize the character/word), or else you've narrowed it down to one (at which point you accept it and move on). And in this sense I think recognizing a Chinese character can't be too terribly different from recognizing an English word - since, after all, characters have recognizable component parts that recur across characters; Chinese has a system of graphemes too!

The question is really whether encouraging readers to look at component parts in bundles makes the identification task easier than encouraging readers to look at component parts in linear order. A related question is whether divorcing the phonological component (for the purposes of recognition, mind you) also frees up some processing time.

Intuitively, it seems highly plausible that the Chinese system does, in fact, facilitate rapid recognition. Since a Chinese reader is presented with "all information at once," he may be freer to focus on the salient parts - the ones that really matter for recognition tasks. An alphabetic reader, by constrast, may be forced to spend undue time focusing on letters that are not really helpful in the particular instance (e.g. in "stone" vs. "stole," the distinguishing letter comes rather late in the process). Chinese readers may furthermore be in a better position to take advantage of sub-graphemic information - such as individual character strokes - than readers of alphabetic systems since the alphabetic system imposes more of a requirement that processing be done as a series of sub-tasks involving character recognition. And in this sense, there is indeed something to what she says that Chinese readers are "looking at the whole."

I would stress, though, that component parts of some kind are still involved in the recognition task - and so today I went trolling for information to back this up. I ran across this interesting article - called "Effects of minimal legible size characters on Chinese word recognition."

The authors have developed an interesting concept called "minimal size" for Chinese characters, which basically states that there is a certain minimal size for each character under which recognition time will degrade. Interestingly - though perhaps not surprisingly - this size differs across characters. Naturally, there is a frequency effect - so more frequent characters are easier to recognize across the board. But controlling for frequency, there is apparently also a "complexity" effect, whereby the "minimal size" of characters that involve more strokes is greater than the "minimal size" for characters involving fewer strokes. (The authors then suggest that short texts in Chinese where writing aesthetics are not important - such as warning signs and instruction manuals - should take advantage of this by printing the characters in different sizes relative to their "minimal size." Apparently, testing on reading speed on such texts yields encouraging results!) Somewhere in the paper they cite an apparently widely-accepted result that says that readers need on average 4.6msec for each stroke in a character.

I found all this rather interesting - because it supports my assertion that Chinese readers do indeed "unpack" their characters in some sense when they are reading them. (Emphasis here on "supports." It doesn't PROVE it because it's still sort of mysterious what exact process Chinese readers use for character recognition. This might simply be a correlation or third-variable issue.)

Another interesting article I found was this one - called "The Science of Word Recognition." It's a very good general overview of some of the research into how alphabetic readers perform word recognition tasks. For some time, apparently, researchers were led down a garden path by information that seemed to support a "word-shape" hypothesis - namely that readers pay attention to the overall shape of the word more than the individual letters involved. He then goes through all the evidence for this (which is superficially quite convincing) and demonstrates that more convincing alernate explanations are available for each point. This apparently led to some support for a linear activation model - whereby people really do scan a word left-to-right and build hypotheses as they encounter new letters - much the way a spell-checker works. Several lines of research have also laid this assumption to rest, however, and the general consensus now is that people see all the letters in parallel in some sense, though there is still a preference for letters just to the right of the point of focus, which is apparently somehwere just to the left of the middle of the word.

Distilling all this down - it seems like alphabetic reading (at least in English) IS linear in some sense - but maybe not to the extent one might expect.

In other words - it's a purely empricial question which of character-based and phonetic systems facilitate recognition more. I, for one, would be very interested in knowing the answer - though as I said, I suspect that it's true that characters are easier to recognize than strings of letters.

(My friend mentioned something about Korean - which really DOES "box" its letters into characters. It would be especially interesting to compare Korean reading rates to those of English and Chinese. I suspect Korean wins.)

There isn't really an overall point here - just that I find such information-theoretic linguistic questions fascinating. Presumably what is going on with "minimal size effects" in Chinese has an explanation in straightforward, Shannon-esque terms. The more "information" in a character, the harder it is to identify - because this is an effect of playing subconscious "20-questions" with it. What I'm curious about is whether the well-known Zipf frequency effects come into play here: are more frequent characters also less likely to have large numbers of strokes? I mean, trivially in any corpus study we would find that they do - just because of the particle "le" (which only has one stroke and is hugely common) and because family names tend to have complex characters. But controlling for those two? I wonder... There's a good case that you might not - because for independent reasons I would imagine that a logographic system is more resistant to change than a purely phonetic one, leading to a possible retention of complex characters in uses that increased in frequency over time over and above what one would expect in alphabetic systems.

But no answers - the studies either have yet to be done, or else (more likely) I'm simply unaware of them. In any case, while I suspect that Chinese characters ARE easier to identify than strings of alphabetic words, I'm not convinced that we really know why, or that our hunches about why are necessarily correct. It's an interesting field for future study.

Another interesting question for me is how English word-recognition times fare with respect to more regular languages that have longer words on average than English - like Dutch and Finnish. I suspect that in spite of the longer sequences, Dutch and Finnish readers are faster because the more reliable phonetic information aids them. English - which has a fairly messy disconect here (which is unfortuantely not total, as in Chinese, in which case it could arguably be an advantage) - is probably unnecessarily confusing.

I Heart my Anger Management Problem

Well, it looks like there's hope for me after all. I'm frequently told I'm "angry" and "short-tempered" or that, as one of my old bosses once put it (I swear I'm not making this up), that I have a "negative personality" and an "astounding, almost superhuman, talent for pissing people off." While I wouldn't go all that far (in his defense, I had just been punched in the staffroom by a mentally unstable coworker, so it's the kind of situation where you tend to exaggeration) - I do realize I'm a bit of a hot-head. Fortunately for me, science has come around and decided this is probably a good thing!

I ran across two scientific arguments in favor of getting angry now and then today, actually. The first one is an article called Anger Fuels Better Decisions that I found on Yahoo! News. This line is a good summary:

Despite its reputation as an impetus to rash behavior, anger actually seems to help people make better choices - even aiding those who are usually very poor at thinking rationally. This could be because angry people base their decisions on the cues that "really matter" rather than things that can be called irrelevant or a distraction.

The study basically involved showing groups of university students two written arguments that university students are financially irresponsible. One argument was solid, the other was apparently based on obvious fallacies. The control group was simply asked to evaluate the arguments, but the experimental group was first "made angry" (by having them recall times they'd been angry at someone in some detail). Apparently the experimental group was better able to spot the fallacies in the crappy argument and tended to reject it outright, whereas the control group rated both arguments roughly equally on whatever "persuasiveness" scale they were using. Conclusion - anger helps you focus and think more clearly. NICE! More gratifying for me (I'm not totally sure why) was a followup where the researchers additionally told the students that for each argument they were shown it had come from either a financial planning service with relevant expertise, or a medical research group with comparatively little expertise. It was found that the "angry" group was also more consistent at identifying the strong argument regardless of who had made it, whereas the control group was more likely to show an effect favoring the financial planning service independent of strength of argument.

The second one is an article called Anger is Good for You. The basic idea:

People who respond to stressful situations with short-term anger or indignation have a sense of control and optimism that lacks in those who respond with fear.

And in fact, I do think of myself as a generally optimistic person in control of his own life. This study had people counting backward from a certain inconvenient number by 13s (!!!) while the researchers would goad them, telling them they were doing a crappy job, that they needed to go faster, that they were stupid, etc. Some sort of psych magic spell was cast to determine, from facial expression, whether people were responding with anger or fear - and apparenty those that responded with anger also performed better at the task.

Unfortunately for me, they also add:

Chronic, explosive anger or a hostile outlook on the world is still bad for you, contributing to heart disease and high blood pressure, research shows.

And in fact, I do have high blood pressure in "rest state" (the problem vanishes when I am getting regular exercise - which I assume is because I release aggression that way).

With regard to my boss' opinion that I have a "negative personality," there is also evidence that some people subconsciously get off on making others angry. The general point of this one:

He and lead author Michelle Wirth measured testosterone levels in volunteers and then had them do a computer task in which certain complex keyboard sequences triggered different images on the computer screen -- an angry face, a neutral face, or no face.

Males and females with higher testosterone levels than other members of the same sex learned the angry face sequence better than the other sequences. This did not happen among volunteers with lower testosterone levels.

I'm not sure how strong a basis this is for concluding that some people "like provoking anger." And I have no idea what my general testosterone level is; I'm not sure I've ever seen the results of measuring it (do they do that in general physicals when they take your blood sample or something?). I do, however, have the "correct" index-ring finger ratio.

This study will be familiar to most people, I'm sure - but supposedly there is a correlation between the ratio in sizes between the index and ring finger in men and how much testosterone they were exposed to in utero. The more testosterone you got during gestation, the closer in size the two fingers are suppose to be. Or, more accurately, the shorter the index finger relative to the ring finger the more testosterone you were exposed to etc. Males with short index fingers relative to their ring fingers are supposed to be more aggressive later in life. My index and ring fingers are almost exactly the same size - so my anger management problem is a poster child for these results, I guess. I should add, though, that the study found that this only accounts for 5% (typical popscience thing to claim - HOW did they determine this precise-sounding result, hmmm???) of the relevant behavior.

Anyway, I found all this rather gratifying (erm, to the extent it was convincing, I mean, which is probably not all that much if you go over the studies with a microscope). To hell with Zen - moderation is for monks! Let's get pissed (off)!!!

Not a Drug Warrior After All???

Following a series of links today, I found myself on Wikipedia's page listing all the people pardoned by Bill Clinton. Curious about the current president, I noticed that there is a page for him too. Of course, there are much fewer pardons on Bush's page, but then Clinton did most of his on his last day in office, so there's plenty of time for Bush yet.

What I find interesting about Bush's pardons is that a great many of them have to do with "moonshining" and "conspiracy to possess marijuana." I mean...WTF, right? If anything, this administration has earned a reputation as fierce drug warriors. As if Ashcroft wasn't bad enough, Gonzales has got to be the most by-the-book, letter-of-the-law drug warrior we've seen in a while, right?

And yet, if you go through the list and count all the pardons or commutations that have to do with drug or alcohol, there are 17 (out of 79) - meaning they account for just over 1/5 of the total. WOW!

I mean, not that I'm complaining. The War on Drugs is stupid and counterproductive by any practical assessment, indefensible on moral grounds, and is in many ways a blatant abuse of federal power besides. I'm all for simply ending it. So I guess I'll file this in my "plus" column in drawing up an overall picture of the Bush Administration. It's just...

Well, I don't get the MPS going on here. Why is the right hand prosecuting with such zeal when the left hand is freeing people convicted as long ago as 1959 (no, really) for the same crimes? Don't make a whole lotta sense...