Monday, February 28, 2011

Charlie Sheen should liberate Tripoli

"I'm on a drug. It's called Charlie Sheen. It's not available because if you try it you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body."

"They picked a fight with a warlock. Defeat is not an option.”

“I will not believe that if I do something then I have to follow a certain path, because it was written nice. It was written for normal people, people that aren’t special. People that don’t have tiger blood, you know, Adonis DNA.”

"Most of the time—and this includes naps—I’m an F-18, bro, and I will destroy you in the air and deploy my ordnance to the ground.”

"I fire back once and this contaminated little maggot can't handle my power and can't handle the truth. I wish him nothing but pain in his silly travels especially if they wind up in my octagon. Clearly I have defeated this earthworm with my words -- imagine what I would have done with my fire breathing fists."

At least it wasn't Crash.

I would say something here about how The King's Speech didn't deserve to win Best Picture, except that anyone who had read about The King's Speech before would know exactly what I was going to say, in much the same way that anyone who had ever seen a self-important historical drama knew exactly what The King's Speech was going to play out.

I am now calling for a moratorium on movies wherein an unexpected figure (e.g.; underdog boxer James Braddock, the King) inspires a nation in the time of crisis (always, always the Depression and World War II). For one thing, they encourage the insidious tendency to substitute faded wood paneling for actual plot, a trend that I resent all the more because I'm a sucker who can't look at old decaying room without being immediately overcome with gravitas. For another, why do these things always get nominated for an Oscar? They all literally have the exact same emotional arc as Angels in the Outfield: problem, unlikely success, montage, problem reemerges, VICTORY! and then a sudden cut to black before the harsh realities of aging or still not having a real dad or the outbreak of global war can sink in. Maybe some carefully-worded titlecards let us know that everything worked out okay, really. I know it's popular because it works, but can we at least recognize that a formula doesn't stop being a formula because you plugged quasi-fictionalized versions of real events into it?

And besides that, how many inspirations does one nation need? If Seabiscuit gave my great-grandmother the courage to soldier on every day, why hadn't I ever heard of him before?

That's the thing about Incredible True Stories That Inspired A Nation. It's sort of obviously, implicitly true that the nation in question has heard the story.

Anyway, have you ever wondered what the King's Speech of 2070 will be? The Miracle on the Hudson? The Chilean Miners?

On the other hand, it's probably impossible to revisit these things. Today, our esteemed News Media recognizes ITSTIAN long before they ripen into sepia-toned dramas with surprising warmth and humor. They're plucked out of the ground in their infancy and dissected under the microscope of twenty-four hour news coverage, the leftover bits and pieces spread thinly over weeks of newspapers and Breaking News Alerts, every drop of their tear-jerking inspirational power put to its maximally efficient use. No anecdote goes unwasted. The only way to make a movie out of these events is to go postmodern with it. You gotta cover the coverage. Really, though, it's for the best -- if Weighty Historical Drama is a non-renewable resource, maybe by 2070 we'll have exhausted our reserves and a smart, well-written movie about boring old things like greed and betrayal can actually win a friggin' Oscar. Or Inception. I would have also been fine if Inception had won.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Unions will never be perfect. They're still essential.

I don't have much to say about Wisconsin that hasn't been said already. But there is one thing that people have said that I'm going to say again, because I think it has the potential to be the most long-lasting effect of the last two weeks in Madison.

Moderate progressives, self-effacing and forever eager to qualify and equivocate, have been pretty hard on unions over the last few decades. Early unions are part of a heroic narrative with universal appeal -- David v. Goliath, the haves v. the have-nots, the powerful v. the powerless. But then unions started winning.

Since then, it's been hard not to look at unions and see the same flaws that exist in any other institution. They privilege members over non-members. Their politics can be dirty. They place self-interest ahead of principle. Sometimes, they are corrupt. They aren't good at balancing competing interests, or often even at recognizing that competing interests exist.

Considering that these are the same problems that liberals criticize in corporations and government, it's uncomfortable to be caught apologizing for unions. And over the last few years I've heard many, many progressives say something to the effect of "Unions did admirable work when factories were deathtraps and workers couldn't make a living wage, but now, they've outlived their usefulness." Particularly among the liberal upper classes, for whom politics is more culture war than class war, the centrality of blue collar concerns to the progressive cause seemed questionable. In short, unions were an anachronism.

Along came Scott Walker.

By taking one brave stand against the right of workers to have a say in their work, Scott Walker has walked back years of liberal apathy on unions.

There's the old political cliche about boiling a frog by slowly turning up the heat.* Scott Walker has grabbed the knob and cranked the stove all the way up. The result has been a sudden awakening among progressive thought leaders to the plight of the working class in America. In a flash, everyone was talking about the years of accretive pressure on unions. All the technocratic skepticism of unions melted away and was replaced with shared outrage.

But it's more important than that, even. Because Scott Walker has also reminded everyone on the left why unions are important. Unions aren't immune to the institutional pressures and incentives that guide corporations and politicians. But unions are important because of whose incentives they embody.

The rich and the well-off have a voice in our society, and I don't think it requires much cynicism to say that they use it to address the problems that the rich and well-off are worried about. It's working! The rich keep getting richer at everyone else's expense. After all, who's going to stop them? As it turns out, David Koch can call the governor of Wisconsin and have a friendly chat whenever he wants. The very wealthy (as opposed to the obscenely wealthy) might not have that privilege, but they can run for city council, they can they donate to their favorite candidates, they can advertise, campaign, join or fund organizations. Meanwhile, a poor person can cast a vote -- if they have the proper photo ID, anyway -- but not much else.

To play this game, you first have to become rich too. You can't beat them without joining them. And once you've joined them, you'll probably start thinking like them. Incentives are everything.

Incentives are everything, and that's the key. Even if we assume the worst about unions -- that they only care about their own, and that they contribute nothing to nonmembers -- it's worth asking why that's such a bad thing. Surely the mass of people who don't have voices on their own, and who don't have anything in common with the millionaires who otherwise speak for them, deserve a chance to look out for number one, just like the rest of us. Perfect competition on the political marketplace, so to speak.

For too long, progressives have seemed apologetic that unions aren't the paragons of social justice that old-time socialists wanted them to be. But unions still play an essential role in a functioning democratic society, and thanks to Scott Walker, I think people are finally remembering that.

At least for now, unions are important again.

*By the way, this isn't true, but no one told Glenn Beck.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The most un-Googleable man alive (for at least the next couple of days)

All this Libya business made me curious how many ways you can spell the good colonel's name. It was more than I thought.

  • Qaddafi, Muammar
  • Al-Gathafi, Muammar
  • al-Qadhafi, Muammar
  • Al Qathafi, Mu'ammar
  • Al Qathafi, Muammar
  • El Gaddafi, Moamar
  • El Kadhafi, Moammar
  • El Kazzafi, Moamer
  • El Qathafi, Mu'Ammar
  • Gadafi, Muammar
  • Gaddafi, Moamar
  • Gadhafi, Mo'ammar
  • Gathafi, Muammar
  • Ghadafi, Muammar
  • Ghaddafi, Muammar
  • Ghaddafy, Muammar
  • Gheddafi, Muammar
  • Gheddafi, Muhammar
  • Kadaffi, Momar
  • Kad'afi, Mu`amar al- 20
  • Kaddafi, Muamar
  • Kaddafi, Muammar
  • Kadhafi, Moammar
  • Kadhafi, Mouammar
  • Kazzafi, Moammar
  • Khadafy, Moammar
  • Khaddafi, Muammar
  • Moamar al-Gaddafi
  • Moamar el Gaddafi
  • Moamar El Kadhafi
  • Moamar Gaddafi
  • Moamer El Kazzafi
  • Mo'ammar el-Gadhafi
  • Moammar El Kadhafi
  • Mo'ammar Gadhafi
  • Moammar Kadhafi
  • Moammar Khadafy
  • Moammar Qudhafi
  • Mu`amar al-Kad'afi
  • Mu'amar al-Kadafi
  • Muamar Al-Kaddafi
  • Muamar Kaddafi
  • Muamer Gadafi
  • Muammar Al-Gathafi
  • Muammar al-Khaddafi
  • Mu'ammar al-Qadafi
  • Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi
  • Muammar al-Qadhafi
  • Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi
  • Mu`ammar al-Qadhdhāfī 50
  • Mu'ammar Al Qathafi
  • Muammar Al Qathafi
  • Muammar Gadafi
  • Muammar Gaddafi
  • Muammar Ghadafi
  • Muammar Ghaddafi
  • Muammar Ghaddafy
  • Muammar Gheddafi
  • Muammar Kaddafi
  • Muammar Khaddafi
  • Mu'ammar Qadafi
  • Muammar Qaddafi
  • Muammar Qadhafi
  • Mu'ammar Qadhdhafi
  • Muammar Quathafi
  • Mulazim Awwal Mu'ammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi
  • Qadafi, Mu'ammar
  • Qadhafi, Muammar
  • Qadhdhāfī, Mu`ammar
  • Qathafi, Mu'Ammar el 70
  • Quathafi, Muammar
  • Qudhafi, Moammar
  • Moamar AI Kadafi
  • Maummar Gaddafi
  • Moamar Gadhafi
  • Moamer Gaddafi
  • Moamer Kadhafi
  • Moamma Gaddafi
  • Moammar Gaddafi
  • Moammar Gadhafi
  • Moammar Ghadafi
  • Moammar Khadaffy
  • Moammar Khaddafi
  • Moammar el Gadhafi
  • Moammer Gaddafi
  • Mouammer al Gaddafi
  • Muamar Gaddafi
  • Muammar Al Ghaddafi
  • Muammar Al Qaddafi
  • Muammar Al Qaddafi
  • Muammar El Qaddafi
  • Muammar Gadaffi
  • Muammar Gadafy
  • Muammar Gaddhafi
  • Muammar Gadhafi
  • Muammar Ghadaffi
  • Muammar Qadthafi
  • Muammar al Gaddafi
  • Muammar el Gaddafy
  • Muammar el Gaddafi
  • Muammar el Qaddafi
  • Muammer Gadaffi
  • Muammer Gaddafi
  • Mummar Gaddafi
  • Omar Al Qathafi
  • Omar Mouammer Al Gaddafi
  • Omar Muammar Al Ghaddafi
  • Omar Muammar Al Qaddafi
  • Omar Muammar Al Qathafi
  • Omar Muammar Gaddafi
  • Omar Muammar Ghaddafi
  • Omar al Ghaddafi

That's 122 different versions. Really, wasn't 42 years enough to sort this out?

I made these for Kyle

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A note

I wish I'd written this.

Monday, February 14, 2011

In which I observe at length that some things are bigger than other things

So there's something about me that's going to emerge pretty quickly on this blog, and it's that I am obsessed with scale. Simply put, human beings aren't nearly as good at understanding it as they think they are. Things that are important to us, and things we're familiar with, become large. Things we don't know much about, or don't care much about, become small. We put things in categories, and then we assume everything in those categories is similar. Our intuition constantly leads us astray. This is bad, and it's pervasive.

Want an example? Try ranking Egypt, Somalia, Uruguay, Vietnam and Nigeria by population. When I did, my results had very little to do with the actual populations of those countries and quite a bit more to do with the mental groups I put them in.

Quite separately, I'm also obsessed with is the national deficit.

So without further ado, courtesy of the New York Times, here's an updated version of what might be my all-time favorite infographic. Go play with it! It's pretty much the logical culmination of my twin fixations. It's also amazing. Twenty minutes messing around with this thing would probably help Americans understand deficit issues more than ten years watching CNN. Turns out, you can't balance the budget by cutting foreign aid. Or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Or the Census. Who knew?

By the way, Vietnam, at 86 million, barely edges out Egypt, at 80 million. Somalia, with 9 million, is smaller than the Chicago metropolitan area. Uruguay, with 3.3 million, is smaller than Seattle. And Nigeria, with 158 million, is the world's seventh most populous country and over half the size of the United States. Gold star if you got it -- I most definitely did not.

The nuclear option as a default option

Imagine that the United States had organized its nuclear arsenal in such a way that the missiles would automatically launch towards Russia, unless Congress stepped in every year or so and expressly voted to not launch them.

That would be pretty dumb, wouldn't it?

You might complain about the brinksmanship that it creates
, but the debt ceiling is first and foremost a failure of institutional design.

Monday, February 7, 2011

That Chrysler Super Bowl spot, which I disliked despite its undeniable craft

I can’t believe I’m going to write about a Super Bowl commercial. But I can’t get this thing out of my head.

So there it is. I know everyone saw it already, though.

“I got a question for you — what does this city know about luxury?”

It’s a powerful way to start what amounts to a minute-long visual tone poem about the city of Detroit.

The spot is evocative. But what is it evoking, exactly? It’s conjuring up the industrial heart of a city, apparently still beating, long after the money and prestige and the jobs have drained away. Those things never really mattered, it says. We’re still here. We’re still building things.

So when it asks us “What does this city know about luxury?” it’s with a biting irony. The answer seems clear enough: nothing, really. Not anymore.

“What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life? Well, I’ll tell you: more than most. You see, it’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.”

You see, Detroit still knows the most important thing about luxury: that it doesn't define them. Detroit never needed its gilded opera houses and skyscraping palaces. Detroit is about the people, and the work they did, and the things they made.

And yeah, that’s a pretty great commercial.

But then it keeps going.

“When it comes to luxury, it’s as much about where it’s from as who it’s for.”

And then there are lots of shots of chrome and gleaming black paint sliding past crumbling ruins.

And then you realize that no, this isn’t a paean to the strength and resilience of the American working man. Chrysler just doesn’t want us worrying that their cars were built in a crappy city full of poor people. You wouldn’t even guess it’s from Detroit, they’re saying. Our city forges the hardest steel. Then, we cover it in fine leather upholstery.

They don’t quite say it outright. And they certainly don’t have any problem appropriating the cultural cachet of Detroit’s long history and current troubles for their own purposes; for instance, when this half-Italian carmaker reminds us that most of us “have never even been here.”

But the message is clear enough. This isn’t a commercial about why Detroit doesn’t need luxury, or how Detroit survived without luxury, it’s about how hardscrabble Detroit builds extra-luxurious cars for rich Americans and their fat, delicate bottoms.

Detroit will never die. Detroit doesn’t need your help. Detroit doesn’t need your money.

But Fiat does. Please buy our junk.

Oh yeah, also, Eminem shows up. Why? Who knows? I guess it’s because he’s from Detroit, and he, like, scrappily fought his way to the top or something. Or maybe it’s because he’s the only person left in Detroit who could be plausibly seen driving a luxury car. Anyway, he tells us that this is the Motor City, and “this is what we do.” Except, of course, it’s Eminem, so every single viewer knows that it’s not what he does. Then he exits stage left, and drives off. Presumably out of Detroit, like everyone else who can.

Just a little more cognitive dissonance in a commercial piled high with it.