26 November 2012

"On Possessing the Burns Fellowship 1966," James K. Baxter

Trees move slowly.  The rain drops arrows
As on the Spartans from the Persian bowstring
Some while ago, across the tennis court
Behind the convent they hope to pull down,

And I who wrote in '62,
Dear ghosts, let me abandon
What cannot be held against
Hangmen and educators, the city of youth! -

Drink fresh percolated coffee, lounging
In the new house, at the flash red kitchen table,
A Varsity person, with an office
Just around the corner - what nonsense!

If there is any culture here
It comes from the black south wind
Howling above the factories
A handsbreadth from Antarctica,

Whatever the architect and planner
Least understand - not impossibly the voice
Of an oracle rising from that
Old battered green veranda

Beyond the board fence: a blood transfusion
From the earth's thick veins!  As if
Caesar had died, and clouds, leaves, conspired to make
A dark mocking funeral wreath.

15 November 2012

"America," Claude McKay

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

09 November 2012


You know that it's a good election day when you have trouble keeping track of your victories and when Alan Caruba is spitting so much bile ("It is a triumph of the stupid, the lazy, the mob.").  Obama won, the Democrats gained two seats in the Senate, the GOP House advantage was diminished, Puerto Rico had an initial vote for statehood (no taxation without representation!), and both gay marriage and legalized marijuana ran the table.  It was an amazing series of victories, and far beyond my best hopes.

I predicted an Obama win two years ago on the basis of broad trends that mostly came true.  I didn't foresee specific events, like the hilarious circus of the Republican primaries, but overall the trends had been clear a long time ago.  The Republicans have a host of problems, not least of which is a base electorate that is relentlessly whiter, older, and more male.  Those sorts of demographic trends made for some hard math for Romney, especially when a strong Democratic ground game and Republican antipathy boosted Latino turnout.  But Obama also earned this victory, which is something that should be remembered and appreciated.  The auto bailout is the clearest example.  It was incredibly unpopular in the wake of the financial bailout, and saving the industry was a risky move that took a hell of a lot of guts.  Even Obama's staunchest supporters were queasy about backing the companies with federal money.  But it was well-managed and succeeded, and that helped convince voters.  The Chicago speech, the stimulus, Obamacare, and Bin Laden are all other examples of gutsy leadership: the President earned this victory with four years of decisions.

And it was a hell of a victory.  In fact, the Republicans should have lost even more.  The wave election of 2010 put the GOP in charge of redistricting after the Census, and they gerrymandered themselves into a permanent House advantage.  But across-the-board incompetence lost Republicans almost everything that could be lost.

You will hear a lot of broad claims about the Republicans in the weeks to come, as they come to terms with their massive loss.  Some ideas will just be flat-out wrong and silly, like the idea that Obama got lucky with Hurricane Sandy.  The hurricane certainly provided an opportunity to show leadership and excel, but it wasn't a certainty.  Obama just did a great job.  Anyone who thinks that hurricanes are automatically popularity boosts should remember Katrina.

The members of the tea party, their hyperconservative base, will claim that the problem was messaging.  In this view, the GOP has the correct ideas, but just aren't communicating them well enough.  This is almost certainly not true, and it's reflective of the mindset that left the Romney campaign confident right up until Election Day.  The problem is not that the Republicans failed to sufficiently harp on Benghazi and socialism.  The problem is that the party was waging a campaign in an alternate reality.  In this reality, the polls were all wrong - hell, math in general was wrong, leading figures like Karl Rove to engage in embarrassing on-air meltdowns.  The party will have to understand that it must make some changes.

These changes will be good for the GOP and good for the country.  The Republicans have not been a very functional party over recent years, as they have tried to appeal to an increasingly small portion of the electorate by employing an increasingly fanatical level of obstruction.  Throughout Obama's presidency, they have stood in the way of every initiative without compromise, in a vicious and cynical attempt to exploit one of the peculiarities of our system: it is zero-sum.  They believed that if they could deny Obama any accomplishments, they needn't actually have any of their own.  Rather than trying to win, the GOP just tried to make the Democrats lose.

Clearly, this strategy failed - spectacularly.  The approaching "fiscal cliff" (expiration of Bush tax cuts and the automatic spending cuts of the sequester) is also extremely favorable to Obama, meaning that they cannot employ the strategy again, even if they chose to do so.

Don't think that the GOP needs change too much, however - ignore sweeping claims about a complete overhaul to moderation.  Instead, anticipate a tactical retreat on only a few key issues.  The Republican leadership is aware of the necessity, and has already begun the process.  They will endure the shrieks of the tea party, because they know that those votes are certain.  Immigration is probably the main issue on which the GOP will make a shift, as signaled by banner-waving Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL).  It's not too far of a stretch: Reagan, after all, was responsible for the first "amnesty."  The issue of Puerto Rico will be a key moment of decision if it continues with its decision to apply for statehood: even though it would be an assured Democratic stronghold, the GOP has to accept that temporary loss in exchange for renewed credibility among a growing Latino electorate.

Whatever the pivot, it will need to be accompanied by one overriding change: the Republicans must return to reality, and open up their epistemic closure.  If they fail to do so, they will continue to lose.


25 October 2012

"I Drink for a Reason," "Bird Cloud," "Out," "Midnight's Children," "If You Ask Me," and "We Will Not Cease."

I Drink for a Reason, David Cross
Bird Cloud, Annie Proulx
Out, Katsuo Kirino
Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
If You Ask Me, Betty White
We Will Not Cease, Archibald Baxter

I Drink for a Reason, David Cross

Adapted from a series of blog posts, I Drink for a Reason offers conventionally cynical rants, lists of nonsense that stretch thin premises ("Ideas for T-Shirts to be Sold at Urban Outfitters"), and condescension enough to test anyone's patience. This book is disappointing, full of bile, and often boring.
What to Wear to a Funeral
No Tevas! That’s rule number 1. Black is considered to be the first color (or lack of) you should choose in your wardrobe. However, if you cannot find any black to wear and the funeral was given with short notice (sometimes a sudden death can come at a very inopportune time, such as between games 6 and 7 of the World Series and you need to get that shit blessed and buried in a hurry!), then wearing blackface is perfectly acceptable. Unless it’s a funeral for Cornell West. That fucker has zero sense of humor. Try not to get any on your teeth, though. That can be misconstrued as being offensive. As a side note, if it is Eve Ensler’s funeral, you can do her no greater tribute then arriving dressed as a giant vagina. Bleeding through a series of well-hidden tubes, if possible. Also, be stinky.
I feel like there exists a single word to describe this book, but I don't know what it might be.  I Drink for a Reason is the opposite of charming - "anti-charming," is that a word?  My vocabulary fails me, because it's hard to find a term for prose that is so completely repellent in tone - smug and slouchingly venomous.

"Boorish is the opposite of charming."

The worst aspect of the book, however, is the author's long harping over small insights.  After seeing an LAPD cruiser with a "Don't Abandon Your Baby" bumper sticker, Cross remarks:
Do we really need to be told not to abandon our babies? Especially by authority figures with guns and shoot-to-kill dispensations? I suppose the answer is yes. It’s one thing when a dear friend or family member asks us not to abandon our baby. Or even a much-loved celebrity, but the cops?
There is a very small amount of cleverness in recognizing that the bumper sticker's message is a bit silly and probably ineffective, of course.  But Cross goes on at great length on each little idea.  If the book were soup, the recipe would read: "Peel and dice one small white onion.  Add ten gallons water.  Serve."

Some jokes are legitimately funny, of course.  I particularly liked the optics in one riff on advertising, where the appearance of the joke is as funny as the gag itself:
I would buy the rights to a word, maybe the word maybe. And every time you used it you would have to pay me. And you would have to pay me in kisses. Or every time you used it you would have to say “David Cross’s maybe.” As in, “Hey, if we get there early enough, David Cross’s maybe we can get tickets.” Or, “Fuck you! Did you ever stop to think that David Cross’s maybe, just David Cross’s maybe that I love you? David Cross’s maybe you’re right.”
By the end of the book, though, you're disappointed that these bits of cleverness are so few.  I Drink for a Reason is a thin broth, and you should avoid it.

Bird Cloud, Annie Proulx

I was fortunate enough to meet Annie Proulx when she was on a book tour to promote Bird Cloud, a book that takes her Wyoming home as its subject.  She was just about exactly as you'd expect: gracious, pleasant, with a hint of bite to her quiet sarcasms.  Proulx is also, of course, an enormously gifted writer (I urge you to read The Shipping News).  Unfortunately, Bird Cloud does not employ her considerable talents in any effective way.  While the skill is clearly visible, the book can't decide whether it wants to be autobiography, history, or just a householder's extended whine.  Proulx appears to have tried to blend different approaches to create a holistic discussion of her windy and remote estate, but the result is an unpleasant amalgam, mixing intriguing anecdotes with entitled complaining.

Bird Cloud focuses on the area of Wyoming that the author purchased a few years ago, with intentions of building a final grand home on the property.  Building up to the purchase, she touches on her personal history, before launching into the tiresome discussion of zoning rights, lumber purchases, and contractor woes that consume much of the text.  The book livens once more halfway through, when it tacks into the past to expound the story of that part of Wyoming, including memorable tidbits about despondent Native Americans and Scottish big game hunters, but this interesting section simply highlights how much of the text is wasted on Proulx's litany of despair about the difficulty of finding the right type of wood for an enormous Japanese-style bathtub.

At its best, the book deploys Proulx's talent for description to great effect.  She has a keen eye for life, and recreates it for the reader with luxuriantly vivid adjectives.  This is most poignant in the end of the book, when she discusses wildlife around Bird Cloud, but is also realized in tales of uneasy encounters:
In some inexplicable way he was repellent.  His face was creased and seamed, his black hair combed over a narrow skull.  Slack stubbled cheeks, discolored teeth.  The bolts of fabric seemed viciously animated.  The man began to talk to us in an obsequious, intimate tone of voice.  His comments were inane, stupid.
"I know ladies like to rummage around with cloth."
This sort of excellent imagery, however, only serves to make the ponderous story of home renovation seem all the more tedious, and remind us of the narrative talent that goes to waste in much of the text.
We waited for the reverse osmosis water purification system.  By error the whole outfit went to Kansas where it was passed along to another freight company that suffered a break-in and wouldn't have another guard until the next day.  Don't call us, we'll call you.  But finally all of it arrived in early March which is not springtime in Wyoming but the snowiest month.  Gerald kept smashing a path through the drifts on the country road and managed to get in and out most days, taking a risk lover's joy in the nauseating slides toward the ditch, the scrape of ice and packed snow on his truck's undercarriage.
At times, it seems like a bad joke, especially when reading about the mounting costs of construction and fencing.  Lizzie speculates - with good reason - that Bird Cloud is just a way to pay for Bird Cloud.  And while I don't know the truth of that, I do know that you'd be better picking up some of Proulx's fiction, instead.

Out, Katsuo Kirino

This crime novel, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, concerns a group of four women who work the night shift at a box-lunch factory.  When one of them commits a murder, the others are drawn into the ensuing cover-up and the ensnaring consequences.  The resulting story in Out yields as unremarkable a book as I have ever seen, with a workaday plot, forgettable characters, and writing that only occasionally aspires beyond mediocrity.

The better parts of the book are when it focuses on the quiet desperation of the working women's lives.  The arduous struggle of their daily toil and the claustrophobia of their difficult circumstances are reflected in their manual labors.  At its best, in these moments Out resembles Upton Sinclair's The Jungle:
About an hour into the shift, they began to hear sounds of distress from the new woman.  Almost immediately, efficiency began dropping on the line and they had to cut the pace.  Masako noticed that Yayoi, trying to help out, had begun reaching across to take some of the newcomer's boxes, though today she seemed hardly able to handle her own.  The veterans on the line all knew that smoothing the rice was a particularly tough job since it had cooled into a hard lump by the time it left the machine.  It took a good deal of strength in the wrists and fingers to flatten the little squares of cold, compact rice in the few seconds the box was in front of you, and the half-stooping position made it hard on the back.  After about an hour of this, pain would be shooting from your spine through your shoulders, and it became difficult to lift your arms.  Which was precisely why the work was often left to unsurprising beginners - though at the moment, Yayoi, who was anything but a beginner, was hard at work at the station, with a sullen but resigned look on her face.
Unfortunately, this sort of wonderful tension is only deployed as a background for a predictable crime story.  Its plot unfolds mechanically and awkwardly, like an ill-built robot staggering across the room.  Kirino's meets with some success with her attempt to shock, by juxtapositioning the mundane and the monstrous, but on balance her minor triumphs of atmosphere seem to be misplaced, searching for a better plot.  I'd suggest you avoid Out.

Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

Oddly enough, the best metaphor I can imagine for Midnight's Children, one of Rushdie's justly-famous early works, is that of a stew.  The magical but passionate tale of Saleem Sinai, a boy born at the instant of India's independence, is told with a mixture of immediate first-person narration and free indirect discourse, allowing the whole of the story to simmer over the fire of the exquisite characterization of Saleem.  Themes and events bubble to the surface, and return again much later in an organic manner.  And the whole of the book is bound together by a central flavor-theme that is strong without being overpowering: the uncertain line between personal story and national history.

I chose this book as preparation for an upcoming trip to India, and it turns out to have been a superb selection.  Midnight's Children is a book about the birth of modern India and Pakistan, along with the political struggles that have accompanied the two countries' problems with authoritarian leadership - Indira Gandhi and Ayub Khan - as well as their clashes over religion and the disputed Kashmir territories.

These grand events are not only the backdrop for Saleem's story, but frequently the results of his own actions.  But as the narrator weaves himself and his family into history, and makes himself essential to the passage of nations, he also becomes gradually aware of the extent to which this vital role is the creation of his own imagination.  Late in the story, he mentions a stranger that he recently met.  But unlike other strangers, this one is not linked to the grand sequence of coincidences and connections that bind Saleem to all of India and Pakistan.
Once, when I was more energetic, I would have wanted to tell his life-story; the hour, and his possession of an umbrella, would have been all the connections I needed to begin the process of weaving him into my life, and I have no doubt that I'd have finished by proving his indispensability to anyone who wishes to understand my life and benighted times; but now I'm disconnected, unplugged, with only epitaphs left to write.
This might seem like a depressing shift in tone.  Saleem has been spinning a magnificent web with his story, connecting himself - the child of midnight - to the fate of the world.  He has been central, and every peripheral character has been important by virtue of that connection.  But as Rushdie gradually introduces more uncertainty into Saleem's narration, the larger and more hopeful message comes through: the connection was an artificial and constricting one, and with its passage there is hope for the characters and the countries to forge their own new destiny.  I  have seldom seem a more elegantly executed change in tone, or more perfectly delivered message.

And what's more: it's entertaining!  The narration is superb, delivered with self-conscious jibes and commentary.  The description is equally skilled:
Shuffling around Buckingham Villa in embroidered skull-cap and full-length chugha-coat--coated, too, in a thin film of dust--he munched aimlessly on raw carrots and sent thin streaks of spittle down the grizzled white contours of his chin. And as he declined, Reverend Mother grew larger and stronger; she, who had once wailed pitifully at the sight of Mercurochrome, now appeared to thrive on his weakness, as though their marriage had been one of those mythical unions in which succubi appear to men as innocent damsels, and, after luring them into the matrimonial bed, regain their true, awful aspect and begin to swallow their souls.
Because they are making a movie of the story, some discussion has centered around the supernatural themes of the book.  Saleem is psychic, and there is abundant magic and mystery in the book.  But those elements seem less important to me.  The real magic in Midnight's Children is the tale of the trap of destiny and how it can be escaped, by men and by nations.  I strongly recommend this book.

If You Ask Me, Betty White

Actress Betty White has, inexplicably, written no fewer than six books during the years she has been on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls.  In fact, If You Ask Me is only one of the books she published in 2011 (the other: Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo).  This is not a phenomenon I can explain, given how bizarrely bad I found If You Ask Me.

Larded with photographs, the actual text of the book is only eight slender chapters.  They have loose themes, but the book as a whole is something like 40% anecdotes about animals, 40% stories about her latest hit sitcom, Hot In Cleveland, and 20% generic rambling.  I have to admit, I feel bad saying this about someone as charming as Betty White, but this book should definitely not have been written, published, purchased, or read.  She writes as she speaks, leaning on underlining and italics emphasis to substitute for vocal emphasis, and she seems to have used up all the decent stories in previous books.  I won't fall into the condescending trap of assuming White was taken advantage of, but her unfocused bits of trivia don't belong in print.
At this moment in time, it seems somewhat current and choice for women to pair up with younger men. These gals are called “cougars.”
Well, animal lover that I am, a cougar I am not. All my life, even as a kid, I have preferred men older than I am.
Unfortunately, today I don’t think there is anyone older than I am!
Even at this age, once in a while I meet a man who seems a trifle more interesting than usual. Nothing untoward—just someone who might be fun to know a little better. I’ve even thought (to myself) that it might be nice if he asked me to lunch or dinner, perhaps. Then reality kicks in and it cracks me up. This guy is probably a much younger man—maybe only eighty—and not about to even look my way.
If You Ask Me is very sweet, very well-suited to Betty White's image, and a complete waste of time.  Do not read it.

We Will Not Cease, Archibald Baxter

We Will Not Cease is an account of Baxter's time as a conscientious objector during the First World War.  I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting from this memoir - stodgy jeremiads, boring details, thrilling adventure?  Regardless, the story turns out to be a stirring story of idealism, told with a matter-of-fact minimalism that's delightful to read.

Archibald Baxter, a farmer from Dunedin, refused to fight, despite the draft imposed on New Zealand.  When called up, he would not accept orders, and so began a series of punishments and humiliations designed to break him down and submit.  There are two prevailing tensions in the book.  The first is the question of whether Baxter's convictions can endure his trials - can he continue to bear up under torture and starvation, or will he crack and agree to accept his uniform?  And the second question is how far the Army will go.  At times, it seems there are no limits on their willingness to break Baxter.  His torturers even take him out to an ammunition dump on the Somme that is being bombed, and - unbelievably - leave him to die.
Booth asked Stevenson if there were any place, near at hand, that was being heavily shelled. He pointed out an ammunition dump at some distance. The Germans had got the range of it and it was being heavily shelled at intervals of about twenty minutes. He told Booth to take me across to it and leave me there. Booth told me to stay there and not to move from where he had placed me. As he hurried away, leaving me standing by the dump, he called back: ‘I hope a shell gets you and blows you to your Maker.’
I stood waiting. I could see him and he, of course, could see me, though he was well out of range. Suddenly, firing began again and the shells came thick and fast. I was in the midst of a storm of spouting, belching mud and fire and flying fragments. The shells seemed to strike everywhere but where I was. I believe that if I had moved at all from where I stood, I should inevitably have been killed. If the dump had gone up I should have gone with it. I stood and waited for what seemed inevitable death. I remember that I had very strange sensations. They were probably due to my overwrought condition. The normal instinct of self-preservation seemed for the time being to leave me entirely. I felt quite calm and peaceful and saw everything round about bathed in a bright white radiance. The whole thing felt strange and unusual, but not unpleasant. I never felt the same again when I was, at subsequent times. under heavy shell fire.
But despite all that is leveled on him, Baxter endures.  Throughout his stoic account, he mentions in astonishing acts of heroism, as when he saw a derailed train under fire, and went to rescue the survivors.
Shells were bursting on the line ahead. I was watching the track in front and all at once I saw that it was torn up. There was no time to do anything. The train left the rails and rolled over the bank. The engine came to a halt lying on its side, stuck in the mud. It was a scene of great confusion. A mass of struggling men were trying to extricate one another, and all around the crash of shells. Anything I did at that time was done instinctively as a man, not as a soldier, and was not what the authorities wanted.
On occasion, Baxter also recounts some of the conversations he had at the time with those who wished him to accept his lot.  Frequently, he is told he is unpatriotic, evil, or cowardly.  He is assured that if he will just agree to take orders, he can have a nice safe job far from the front lines.  He is remonstrated that his country will never know what he endures, and that he stands to gain nothing.  Baxter replies with simple, stalwart courage.
'War is an evil thing, should be done away with, and I believe can be done away with. It seems right to me to stand out against it and I intend to stand out against it, no matter what I suffer, even if they kill me.’
Baxter became most famous for his endurance of the Army's "Field Punishment No. 1": crucifixion.  It was in this capacity he was most known as a peace activist and, later, as the father of the most famous New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter.  The iconic image of the row of punishment poles has become a part of the lore of that war in New Zealand.
He took me over to the poles, which were willow stumps, six to eight inches in diameter and twice the height of a man, and placed me against one of them. It was inclined forward out of perpendicular. Almost always afterwards he picked the same one for me. I stood with my back to it and he tied me to it by the ankles, knees and wrists. He was an expert at the job, and he knew how to pull and strain at the ropes till they cut into the flesh and completely stopped the circulation. When I was taken off my hands were always black with congested blood. My hands were taken round behind the pole, tied together and pulled well up it, straining and cramping the muscles and forcing them into an unnatural position. Most knots will slacken a little after a time. His never did. The slope of the post brought me into a hanging position, causing a large part of my weight to come on my arms, and I could get no proper grip with my feet on the ground, as it was worn away round the pole and my toes were consequently much lower than my heels. I was strained so tightly up against the post that I was unable to move body or limbs a fraction of an inch. Earlier in the war, men undergoing this form of punishment were tied with their arms outstretched. Hence the name of crucifixion. Later, they were more often tied to a single upright, probably to avoid the likeness to a cross. But the name stuck.
At times, he had to stay suspended for many hours.
Between my set teeth I said: ‘Oh God, this is too much. I can't bear it.’ But I could not allow myself the relief of groaning as I did not want to give the guards the satisfaction of hearing me. The mental effect was almost as frightful as the physical. I felt I was going mad. That I should be stuck up on a pole suffering this frightful torture, a human scarecrow for men to stare at and wonder at, seemed part of some impossible nightmare that could not continue. At the very worst strength came to me and I knew I would not surrender. The battle was won, and though the suffering increased rather than decreased as the days wore on, I never had to fight it again.
In the latter part of the memoir, Baxter marches along the front lines with soldiers.  He refuses service, so he is not attached to a platoon, and because he can't give a platoon number, they refuse to feed him.  He is starved almost to the brink of death, before being rescued and sent to a hospital.  It was moments like this that prompted Baxter's exasperated exchange with the Corporal in charge of torture:
‘And if I am broken, what good should I be to the authorities or anyone else?’
‘That doesn't concern us. It's your submission we want, Baxter, not your services.’
He never submitted.

Interesting and fairly well-written, this short memoir is probably worth your time - particularly since it's available for free online.

19 September 2012

Today's XKCD

Today's xkcd cartoon was annoyingly hard to navigate, so I started to find the actual hidden image files.  It took like fifteen long drags to try to get to the bottom of the world, and I don't have all day.  So here they are as I get them:
You're welcome.

Update: As I was getting started, someone posted a grab of all the images, saving me a huge amount of time.  Get them here.

06 September 2012

One-Stop Democratic Convention Shop

My three favorite speeches from the convention:

Michelle Obama just tore it up:

 Bill Clinton's speech ran way over time, but I never even noticed:

John Lewis on voting rights:

Will Obama Win?

I love politics, and I follow it obsessively. And a question I am frequently asked is one that is important not just to Americans, but even to the Kiwis here: will Barack Obama win a second term of office?

For more than a year, I've stubbornly insisted that his odds were - at best - 50/50. To many people, particularly the contingent abroad (which is usually far more liberal than the majority of America) this was unbelievable. During the heights of the Republican primary circus, where the rhetoric and personalities were contemptuous and silly, some of my friends laughed at my pessimism. But while Obama has an advantage in likability and in ideology, these traits have only barely managed to sustain him in the face of some severe problems. He inherited the worst economic crisis in a generation, and while he's pulled back and pulled the economy out of its nosedive, the gremlins on the wings are still successfully taunting him about our altitude. And his signature accomplishments have been astoundingly effective, but also effectively invisible: the stimulus' greatest effect was on sustaining programs and jobs that would otherwise have been lost, and most of Obamacare's programs are gradually enacted around 2014.

Now, though, I am finally willing to revise my estimate upwards. This is not based on blind optimism or the misleading dialogue of the moment, but on facts and numbers. To put it simply: Romney has very few paths to victory, and Obama has many.

Romney's best chance has always been that there will be a disaster. A foreign policy disaster, like Carter's Operation Eagle Claw, would have allowed the Republicans to paint Obama as a feckless failure - which actually shows you just how gutsy was the Bin Laden raid.  An economic disaster, which was a bit more likely, would also put iron in the glove of the GOP when they claimed that the President had made the recession worse.

Unfortunately for Romney, while the recovery has been anemic, disaster has remained elusive. Politico ably summarizes the economic news of the moment:
The Nasdaq-100 index hit its highest level since December 2000 and Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is at its peak since January 2008, Bloomberg reported on Thursday. The S&P 500 gained 2 percent to reach 1,432.12, a four-year closing high, and the Nasdaq-100 Index climbed to 2,829.71, its highest close since 2000. The Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped 244 points to 13,292, its highest since December 2007.

The market highs come in the wake of the European Central Bank announcing its bond-buying plan to support countries heavily in debt in the region, Bloomberg noted. Elsewhere on the economic front, employment numbers at service companies grew faster in August than July, according to The Associated Press on Thursday. Fewer Americans also applied for unemployment benefits last week, the Department of Labor announced, with applications for jobless benefits down 12,000.

And tomorrow morning, the government delivers its highly anticipated August jobs report. According to economists, the report will likely show 135,000 jobs were added last month, but the unemployment rate is expected to stay at 8.3 percent, according to the AP.
The heart of that news is that European Central Bank announcement that they will buy up all that Eurozone debt. And while the Democratic National Convention is important and some of the speeches have already been amazing (especially Michelle Obama's), the debt announcement is the single best news for Obama's re-election. It almost eliminates one of Romney's best hopes for disaster.

Because of this positive news, Romney is in trouble. Nate Silver at the NYT's 538 blog puts him at a 24% chance of victory and the betting market InTrade has it at 41%. Considering how national polling generally has Romney within the margin of error of Obama, why do these pundits - and now myself - all think that the GOP is in serious trouble?

The answer is the electoral college.
2008 Electoral College Results

Dividing all of America up into reliably Democratic states and reliably Republican states shows that the Democrats have a baseline of 187 electoral votes (MD, DE, NM, NY, RI, VT, HI, CA, IL, MA, MN, NJ, WA, NM). Republicans, on the other hand, have a baseline of 140 (AL, KY, UT, WY, ID, OK, AK, IN, SC, WV, MT, TX, NE, KS, ND, LA, MS). So Democrats have a significant advantage in the base of the numbers as they race to 270.

Other states are also fairly certain for either party - they're not ironclad, but they're very unlikely to shift. This leaves Obama at 221 electoral votes (CT, OR, PA), and it puts Romney at 191 (TN, MO, AZ, SD, GA).

Thus, the entire campaign to date has been about the 126 electoral votes left in the "battleground" states - the states that can be won be either party. But Romney's chances of winning most of these states have become increasingly remote. For example, just yesterday the Romney campaign and the "independent" Super-PAC run by Tagg Romney pulled their advertising from the battleground state of Michigan. In their judgment and based on their internal (and secret) polling, they have decided that Michigan cannot be won and the money is better spent elsewhere. And other states have so few electoral votes (NH, NV, IA) that it's unlikely they would make a substantial difference in the totals.

So when you get right down to it, there are three states that will decide the election: Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. These three states have 18, 29, and 13 electoral votes, respectively.

Bottom line: Romney has to win all three of these states to win. Obama just needs any one of them.

It's not a done deal - not by a long shot. But I think Barack Obama will probably win another term.

30 August 2012

"Greed and Debt": Taibbi on Romney

Matt Taibbi, whose colorful and insightful financial reporting frequently gives me outrage fatigue (and then Goldman Sachs sold the baby's blood, powering the delivery truck with the liquid remains of its mother!) has written a brilliant profile of Romney's time at Bain Capital.
To recap: Romney, who has compared the devilish federal debt to a "nightmare" home mortgage that is "adjustable, no-money down and assigned to our children," took over Ampad with essentially no money down, saddled the firm with a nightmare debt and assigned the crushing interest payments not to Bain but to the children of Ampad's workers, who would be left holding the note long after Romney fled the scene. The mortgage analogy is so obvious, in fact, that even Romney himself has made it. He once described Bain's debt-fueled strategy as "using the equivalent of a mortgage to leverage up our investment."
Which brings us to another aspect of Romney's business career that has largely been hidden from voters: His personal fortune would not have been possible without the direct assistance of the U.S. government. The taxpayer-funded subsidies that Romney has received go well beyond the humdrum, backdoor, welfare-sucking that all supposedly self-made free marketeers inevitably indulge in. Not that Romney hasn't done just fine at milking the government when it suits his purposes, the most obvious instance being the incredible $1.5 billion in aid he siphoned out of the U.S. Treasury as head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake – a sum greater than all federal spending for the previous seven U.S. Olympic games combined. Romney, the supposed fiscal conservative, blew through an average of $625,000 in taxpayer money per athlete – an astounding increase of 5,582 percent over the $11,000 average at the 1984 games in Los Angeles. In 1993, right as he was preparing to run for the Senate, Romney also engineered a government deal worth at least $10 million for Bain's consulting firm, when it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. (See "The Federal Bailout That Saved Romney," page 52.)

But the way Romney most directly owes his success to the government is through the structure of the tax code. The entire business of leveraged buyouts wouldn't be possible without a provision in the federal code that allows companies like Bain to deduct the interest on the debt they use to acquire and loot their targets. This is the same universally beloved tax deduction you can use to write off your mortgage interest payments, so tampering with it is considered political suicide – it's been called the "third rail of tax reform." So the Romney who routinely rails against the national debt as some kind of child-killing "mortgage" is the same man who spent decades exploiting a tax deduction specifically designed for mortgage holders in order to bilk every dollar he could out of U.S. businesses before burning them to the ground.
Read the whole thing. Taibbi's gift for verbiage is such that even abstruse financial chicanery is given solid metaphorical grounding. Great stuff.

25 August 2012

Alan Caruba: Basically just publishes whatever he finds in his inbox

Today's column by Alan Caruba is a glorious example of the fact-free nonsense that he thoughtlessly repeats:
If you want to know how President Obama feels about the U.S. military, consider that in all the years since D-Day 1945 there have been three occasions when a President failed to go to the D-Day Monument that honors the soldiers killed during the Invasion.
The occasions were:
1. Barack Obama 2010
2. Barack Obama 2011
3. Barack Obama 2012

For the past 68 years, all Presidents, except Obama, have paid tribute to the fallen soldiers killed on D-Day. This year, instead of honoring the soldiers, he made a campaign trip on Air Force 1 to California to raise funds for his reelection.
Fifteen seconds after I read this, I found the relevant page on Snopes:
This item claiming that President Barack Obama is the only U.S. President who has "failed to go to the D-Day Monument" on the anniversary of that event is a bit ambiguous, but by any reasonable interpretation it's far from accurate.
Now, it's quite a triumph for a columnist to lead with an easily-disproven "fact" they've culled from an email forward. But Caruba's not content to have simply one ridiculous claim. He also goes on to declare that Obama's poor military policy stems from an unwillingness to leave Iraq and Afghanistan "destroyed with sufficient devastation as to never contemplate attacking us or our allies again." His counter-examples? Germany, Japan, and Vietnam!
World War Two was a success because both Germany and Japan were required to sign instruments of unconditional surrender. Both nations are now our allies. Even Vietnam where the U.S. blundered into a civil war and was ultimately forced to withdraw now has normalized diplomatic relations and welcomes U.S. investment.
Ah, yes, that noted military triumph of Vietnam.

The crazy thing, of course, is that Caruba seems to be demanding that we send in a huge number of additional troops, fighting the insurgency until Al'Qaida is willing to sign an unconditional peace treaty. The fact that the enemy is not a sovereign nation does not appear to have occurred to him.

From there, Caruba goes off into his usual tizzy about biofuels, drilling, and the repetition of ludicrous lies ("The exception to the long engagement in the Middle East was the successful killing of Osama bin Laden, but even that was tarnished by a President who took full credit for it"). It's all pretty embarrassing.

Remember, folks, if you want to get your right-wing email forwards published in a syndicated column, just send them right on over to Alan Caruba.

Caruba's defense for the laughable falsehood at the beginning of the column:
The reference is a METAPHOR and Snopes is frequently said to be owned by George Soros or an association.

What MATTERS are the facts of the commentary as regards the state of our military.
This blatant lie is just a metaphor and why can't you people understand that?!

20 August 2012

"Hilarity Ensues," "Moneyball," "John's Story," and "Rob Roy."

Hilarity Ensues, Tucker Max
Moneyball, Michael Lewis
John's Story, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins
Rob Roy, Sir Walter Scott

Hilarity Ensues, Tucker Max 

Physicists have theorized about the heat death of the universe, if it continues to expand.  In this vision of the future, the stars bloat into red giants and then are extinguished, to drift as cinders in the endless cold.  All matter will decay into dust and ions.  The universe will be still and frozen, with not even an electron to shiver.  There will be naught but a vast nothing.

But I believe that even then, Tucker Max will survive.  He will still be writing his vile books.  His particular brand of coarseness (masquerading as frankness) and his emetic storytelling (which has the same value as a Funniest Home Videos shot to the testicles) seems to have an unlimited power of persistence.  Deep in the black night, spinning in a void, there will be a vomitous echo of Tucker Max:  "And then I put it in her BUTT!  Haw haw!"

Still, when I saw this book, I felt sympathy.  I didn't feel bad for Tucker Max, whose previous book I dubbed worst of 2011.  I didn't feel bad for his associates and friends, who seem to dredge out some mysterious value from his acquaintance.  And I didn't even feel bad for his readers, who - like me - surely know what they must endure.  No, I felt bad for the institution of the book.  Tucker Max sullies the very printed word.

As with I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Assholes Finish First, this text is structured as a series of anecdotes about Tucker Max's adventures with alcohol and sex.  In Hilarity Ensues, many of these stories are the same random mishmash as before, but there is also an extended account of Tucker's time with the cast of the Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch.  In three places in the text, there is an additional set of "sexting" excerpts, where we see text message conversations between him and some of his fans.

The anecdotes rely heavily on gross-out humor.  This is the sort of book where an entire story can be easily summed up with the "punchline":  "Oh my God—you farted so hard it made your nose bleed!"  If this sort of thing intrigues you, resist the urge - that's not the grand summary of some epic story.  That's all the story there is: he once saw someone fart really hard and their nose started bleeding.  It is exactly as fascinating as it would be if someone cornered you near the water cooler and started telling you about their cat's lymphoma.

Another example:
He just sat there for what seemed like forever with his mouth open, drooling bile into his hat, which was completely full. Like a bowl of soup, except it was vomit. He eventually sat up, drank some water, and started to actually look like he had some life back in him. Then he got up, reached down for his hat and, having forgotten that he threw up in it, put it back on his head.
The problematic tone of the book is worsened by Tucker's insistence on his own amazing wit.  While his hyperbolic claims of brilliance might have been mildly amusing initially, in contrast with his actual output they began to seem sad and tiresome.  Tucker's descriptions of his own success soon begin to sound like the ludicrous claims of a teenager.
Released from any focus on the outcome, not caring about anything other than entertaining myself and having fun, I started fucking with her and saying completely ridiculous shit just to make everyone laugh and put her in her place:
“My penis is going to be in something tonight. The more you talk, the less likely it’ll be you.”
“When you talk, I have to block out what you’re saying and replace it with thoughts of what you could be saying. That way, you’re still attractive.”
“What do you think is more disgusting: what they put in hotdogs, or what a hotdog would taste like after it’s been inside of you?”
And then everyone at the party just burst into applause and said how great Tucker was, and Sylvester Stallone came by and gave him a sweet high-five and the girl admitted that she was dumb and that Tucker was so right.  It was awesome.

There are a few funny jokes.  I chuckled when I read, "My head was killing me, and I wasn’t excited by the prospect of fully waking up and dealing with the worst hangover since Jesus woke up on Easter."  But these jokes are few and far between - and by that, I mean that there are five funny things in the entire book.  Far more often the "hilarious" things that Tucker does amount to the tedious antics of a drunken child:
You found a bag of ice, and you carried it around the party yelling out, “I’m so hot, I’m gonna melt all this iiiiiiiiccccceee! Look at the ice melting … because I’m so hot.”
You complimented a girl on her costume and said she did a really good job with it, and she thanked you. Then you said, “I assume you were intending to come as a piece of shit, right?” I apologized to her for you.  ...
We met a very nice man who was an African-American and a homosexual. You called him a “blaggot.” He thought it was funny. 
(And in case it isn't obvious: the book is shockingly racist, misogynistic, and homophobic.

Example: “Hold on—you’re a black guy from Mississippi, you can read AND you have a job? You must be the star of the state. They must have a statue of you down there.”

Another: "What kind of greedy, selfish, entitled bitch takes not just two, but THE LAST TWO rolls from the roll basket when it’s clear not everyone has gotten one, and then just eats the center out of both?? I could tell you what kind, but I’m tired of getting emails from the Anti-Defamation League.")

And the writing.  How can I describe the writing?  It's difficult, but here goes:

Hilarity Ensues is gonorrhea on the page.

Not just once, but multiple times, the success of a joke is indicated with this sort of line:  "Friend: 'HAHAHHAHAHAHAHHAHAAHHHAHHAHA.'”  Here's a writing tip, folks: any time your technique requires you to hold down Shift and mash two keys a lot, you're doing it wrong.

But even worse than this sort of writing is when poor Tucker really tries.  Most of the book is a wearisome assembly of the words "whore," "booze," "fuck," "awesome," and "totally."  But at two or three points, he actually attempts to put together a coherent paragraph.  This is Tucker at the peak of his effort:
I could probably write a 20,000-word article just about Dutch Harbor, and the city of Unalaska that surrounds it. It’s one of the most contradictory and compelling places I’ve ever been. It’s both completely modern and really old at the same time, but in weird ways. For example, it was an important base during World War II (it was the only place in America other than Pearl Harbor that the Japanese bombed). The island is covered in all sorts of abandoned, overgrown pillboxes and bunkers. Many of them sit next to huge logistical cranes used to load massive freighters. It’s the largest fishery port in the United States; the island is basically nothing but boats, warehouses, and processing buildings. But only about 4,000 people live there year-round (the population more than doubles during certain fishing seasons, due to all the people who fly in to work at the processors). There are only seven miles of paved road on the whole island, but there are at least a thousand vehicles there. The airfield is so small they have to close the road that runs next to it when planes take off, so they don’t clip passing cars. There are only two bars, but they’re always packed. The island is incredibly naturally beautiful and filled with all sorts of endangered and protected animals that all but interact with you. We would eat breakfast every day next to an inlet where otters were diving for shellfish and dozens of eagles would perch not even ten feet from the windows.
There are some serious problems here, and they reveal Tucker's fatal flaw: he is incapable of showing us anything.  He can tell us about things, but he lacks any sort of narrative ability or descriptive power.  We're instructed that the island is "incredibly naturally beautiful" because he is unable to describe incredible natural beauty.  And while he seems to understand the strengths of paradox - old and new, endangered but accessible - he cannot put it to use except in the crudest way.

This is all the sadder because he considers himself a "writer" rather than the literary equivalent of Snooki.

After Tucker was fired from his summer internship and found himself unable to get a job as a lawyer, he flew down to Florida and began working for his father, Dennis Max, who owns several restaurants.  Tucker was so shockingly incompetent that even his father was forced to fire him, as related in Hilarity Ensues.  He started blogging.  Within the year, he was being sued, and Tucker pled for his father to give him money to cover his lawyer's retainer; his father agreed, but only if Tucker was willing to take the bar exam (Tucker took the money, then refused to take the exam, because he is a class act).  Since then, and for more than ten years, he has made his living as a "professional writer."  He has written six books, and is working on his seventh.

But despite all this time and no matter how much he tries, Tucker Max is a terrible writer.  Hilarity Ensues is so bad it actually qualifies as a sort of epic achievement.  I picture it being launched into space in a black casket, landing on some distant shore, and teaching a hooting band of green-skinned alien primates the money-making opportunities in describing your own poop.

Do not read this book.  Do not buy this book.  And if someone tries to give you this book as a gift, you might have grounds for a lawsuit.

Moneyball, Michael Lewis

Along with The Big Short, this is the book that made Michael Lewis' name. It's interesting- the subject of Moneyball is baseball, but I never would have imagined such a gifted economic reporter as Michael Lewis tackling a tale of sports.  But he does so here with the clarity, grace, and humor that found a narrative in the depths of the subprime mortgage debacle.

It might seem like it's easy to write the story of the unlikely success of the Oakland Athletics under manager Billy Beane.  Despite being one of the poorest teams in Major League Baseball, they kept making the playoffs, year after year.  In a game that appeared to run on a simple formula - more money, more wins - their odd winning streak demanded investigation.  But noticing the possibilities in a topic are not enough, as we saw in the disastrous No Bone Left Unturned.  You also have to present the story in a way that is clear, interesting, understandable, and insightful.

I believe the key to Lewis' success lies in two places: his organizational skill and his solid craftsmanship.

This latter is the easy to see.  Lewis' clear prose is fluid and direct.  There is not much art, and no pretense to it: this is storytelling, flat and strong.
The A’s leadoff hitter, Jeremy Giambi, steps into the box. The one talent every fan and manager in the game associated with a leadoff hitter was the talent Jeremy Giambi most obviously lacked. “I’m the only manager in baseball,” A’s manager Art Howe complained, “who has to pinch-run for his leadoff man.” Sticking the ice wagon in the leadoff slot had been another quixotic front office ploy. What Jeremy did have was a truly phenomenal ability to wear pitchers out, and get himself on base. In the first regard he was actually his brother’s superior. He draws a walk from Mike Stanton and ties the game at 5–5. Inside the video room, for the first time, we can hear the crowd. Fifty-five thousand fans are beside themselves. The pleasure of rooting for Goliath is that you can expect to win. The pleasure of rooting for David is that, while you don’t know what to expect, you stand at least a chance of being inspired.
The other elements only come into focus when you consider the whole book.  In organizing the text, the success of the A's under manager Billy Beane is set against Beane's own disastrous career as a player.  Lewis uses Beane to illustrate some of the many problems and inefficiencies in the methods of baseball scouts and managers: how they value the wrong traits, bet on the wrong players, and turn a promising young athlete into a ball of seething frustration.  With this tragedy described, Lewis has simultaneously set the stage for the dramatic triumph of Beane, and given personal dimensions to the otherwise dry topic of market forces in baseball.  It's masterful and invisible.

I recommend this book, even if you (like me) don't care at all about baseball.  It's an interesting story in its own right.

John's Story, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins

I have been very hard on LaHaye and Jenkins.  I mercilessly reviewed each book of their end-times series Left Behind, and lost no opportunity to skewer its nonsensical plot and abysmal writing.  But I am also proud to admit when I have made a mistake.  There are times when an author reveals that they have learned over the years and solved their problems.  Their book is not just readable, but surprisingly good.

This is not one of those times.  John's Story is not good.

The story is a first-person description of the end of the life of John the apostle.  Old and infirm, he writes first the Gospel of John, his Epistles, and later the Book of Revelations.  During this process, he is arrested, sent to Patmos and imprisoned, and must deal with the heretic Cerinthus.  But these latter elements are not really very important, except as a vehicle to allow Jerry Jenkins to deliver Tim LaHaye's interpretation of the Gospel and Revelations.

I am not going to go into the doubtful aspects of the accepted history, and why this is probably not true.  I'm not even going to touch on whether it is likely that the author of the Gospel could have personally known Jesus.  All of this, and the veracity of the Jesus myth, I'm going to just take as read.

If we cede all of this dubious things, that leaves only a narrow gap for the actual book: how effectively does Jenkins communicate the preaching?

Not well, as it turns out.
"Excuse me," came the voice of a young man John knew was still in his teens.  "I know you wish to press on, but plainly we must understand these four horsemen."
Polycarp looked at John, who stood again.
"When I saw the rider of the white horse with a bow, there is a reason I did not add that he had arrows, for he did not.  This is a proclaimer of peace, but it is a false peace.  Someone has crowned him and he goes out to conquer, but his battles will be bloodless and true peace only artificial."
Golly, that sure sounds a lot like another interpretation of the end times... now where did I read that?

Yes, that's right.  Much of John's Story is a justification of Left Behind, that terribly-written pile of nonsense.  The authors must have tired of enduring challenges to their ability to interpret Revelations, so they trotted out a fictionalized John to prove themselves right.

"See!" they say, jerking the strings of their prophet-marionette, "We were right all along!  John even agrees!"

But even worse, all of their lengthy (LENGTHY) experience doesn't seem to have much improved their abilities.  Secondary characters twitch and stagger, responding woodenly to the demands of a cursory plot.  The antagonist, bulky and stuffed with straw, swings around bonelessly.  The puppet show is wholly artificial.

Perhaps the worst part, though, are the lengthy paraphrases of scripture, when Jesus' life or the weirdness of prophecy are rehashed in a clumsy fashion.  In comparison with these ham-handed fumbles, even the dancing of the puppet enemy Cerinthus is interesting, despite arguments that are about as sophisticated as those of a child.

John's Story is an extremely boring exercise in self-justification.  No one, Christian or otherwise, should waste their time with it.

Rob Roy, Sir Walter Scott

One of the interesting things about Sir Walter Scott is his ability to describe virtually any incident in extraordinary volume, without being boring.  It's hard to even know where all the words go - Scott might spend thirty pages in relating the protagonist's selection of dinner fork, yet somehow no space is wasted on irrelevancies.  I had previously encountered this with Ivanhoe, his marvelous medieval tale, but found it held true in Rob Roy as well.

The plot is a relatively simple, despite the numerous small occurrences that crop up as it goes along: young Frank Osbaldistone is unwilling to be a banker, so he goes north to his estranged Scottish (very Scottish) cousins.  There he falls in love with a distant relation, and is caught up in the Jacobite intrigue of one particular scheming and hunchbacked cousin, who conspires to ruin Frank's father, marry his love, and topple the King.  During the wandering and adventurous experiences of Frank, a heroic Scot named Rob Roy frequently intervenes, simultaneously putting on a display of manful Scottish independence.  And throughout: thick and dense dialect:
"Naething mair easy," Andrew observed; "he had but to hint to his cousin that I wanted a pair or twa o' hose, and he wad be wi' me as fast as he could lay leg to the grund."
The protagonist, Frank, is pleasantly pompous.  He prefers to be a poet, and punctuates each chapter of his narrative with a quote from a famous poem or book.  He's also continually condescending to anyone lesser than himself - especially his father's business associates.
The dictates of my father were to MacVittie and MacFin the laws of the Medes and Persians, not to be altered, innovated, or even discussed; and the punctilios exacted by Owen in their business transactions, for he was a great lover of form, more especially when he could dictate it ex cathedra, seemed scarce less sanctimonious in their eyes.
Yet for all his amiable superiority, much of the story is about how Frank finally learns to be a man, once he is well away from the influences of his French education and in the stolid heartiness of the Scottish countryside.  And the romance between Frank and Diana is extremely well-rendered: the tension of contemporary sensibilities, where even being alone together was a transgression, is employed with well-wrought gusto.
We stood in a singular relation to each other,—spending, and by mutual choice, much of our time in close society with each other, yet disguising our mutual sentiments, and jealous of, or offended by, each other's actions. There was betwixt us intimacy without confidence;—on one side, love without hope or purpose, and curiosity without any rational or justifiable motive; and on the other, embarrassment and doubt, occasionally mingled with displeasure.
Be prepared for a lengthy read, but Rob Roy will appeal to anyone who likes voluminous prose and high-falutin' adventure.  I would recommend Ivanhoe for the first-time Scott reader, however.

13 August 2012

Two Facts About Paul Ryan

So the Representative for Wisconsin's first district, Paul Ryan, has been tapped as Romney's vice-presidential nominee.  Let me get the obligatory stuff out of the way first, much of which you'll have already heard: Ryan is a serious policy wonk and the ideological head of the Republican Party, and is most known for his attempts to privatize Social Security during the Bush administration as well as his alternative and very conservative budget plans during the Obama administration.  These plans are considered most notable for the fact that they eliminate Medicare, replacing it with a voucher system.

Ryan has been frequently called "brave" for his efforts to reform entitlements.  But this isn't apt, because his plan exempts anyone currently on Medicare, as well as the next ten years of retirees.  Ryan's plan would cripple the social safety net for the young, and he wanted to get it passed by appeasing the old.  That's not brave.  That's generational theft.

But you'll hear all about that, I think.  So here are two things you might not have heard about.

Paul Ryan has been in Congress since he was 28, but has only ever passed two bills: he renamed a post office, and added a new tax loophole for archers.
Ryan, who Mitt Romney has tapped as his running mate, passed a bill into law in July 2000 that renames a post office in his district. Thanks to Ryan, the post office on 1818 Milton Ave. in Janesville, Wis., is now known as "Les Aspin Post Office Building."

The other time Ryan saw one of his bills become law was in December 2008, with legislation to change the way arrows (as in bows and arrows) are hit with an excise tax. Specifically, his bill amended the Internal Revenue Code to impose a 39-cent tax per arrow shaft, instead of a 12.4 percent tax on the sales price. The bill also "includes points suitable for use with arrows in the 11 percent excise tax on arrow parts and accessories."
This comes from the Huffington Post, but it's easily verifiable because the Congressional Record is publicly available.  It's also a meaningful factoid: Ryan is not a legislator, he's an obfuscator.  Getting consensus to pass bills that help the country is hard, and Ryan has preferred to obstruct rather than compromise.

In the current diseased era of Congress, where every attempt to do something useful is interrupted with the hacking cough of a filibuster, Paul Ryan is Typhoid Mary.

Under the Romney-Ryan budget proposal, Mitt Romney would have paid 0.82% in federal taxes.

Under Ryan's budget proposals, which are now Romney's budget proposals, all tax on capital gains, interest, and dividends is reduced to 0%, the Alternative Minimum Tax would be removed, and the super-rich see their taxes slashed from 35% to 25%.  Like most of the super-wealthy, most of Romney's income comes from his investments and not his job, so he would pay no taxes on anything but his speaking fees.  The Atlantic has the numbers:
Romney did earn $593,996 in author and speaking fees in 2010 that would still be taxed under the Ryan plan. Just not much. Ryan would cut the top marginal tax rate from 35 to 25 percent and get rid of the Alternative Minimum Tax -- saving Romney another $292,389 or so on his 2010 tax bill. Now, Romney would still owe self-employment taxes on his author and speaking fees, but that only amounts to $29,151. Add it all up, and Romney would have paid $177,650 out of a taxable income of $21,661,344, for a cool effective rate of 0.82 percent.
 Romney is now unavoidably running on this budget and on these cuts.  Just remember that number: 0.82 percent.

12 August 2012

Batman and Bane: Strategy Sessions

In this spoiler-filled post, you can witness some of the secret planning sessions that took place offscreen of The Dark Knight Rises.

The Plane Kidnapping
Bane details his plan to his top lieutenants in his army.  The enormous man's curiously elegant voice lays out how his needlessly intricate plan.

Bane: ...and then I will pump some of the scientist's blood into the dead man, and we will drop the plane and escape.  What do you think?
Minion:  Wait a second, I don't get it.  Why does one of us need to stay behind and die on the plane?  The CIA isn't going to be fooled by this crash... what are they gonna say?  "Okay so this plane's wings fell off, then it flew for another few minutes, then it fell in two neat sections"?
Bane:  Look at my mask.  I am in charge.  You are not.
Minion:  Also, what's the deal with the blood?  This body's going to be in a plane crash, why would they try to draw blood to match the DNA?  Wouldn't they take some skin, hair, or basically any other part of the body?
Bane:  If you do not be quiet I will show you my face and it will be gross.
Minion:  This all seems really unnecessary, too.  We're doing this just to find out how much the scientist told the CIA?  Why don't we just torture the scientist and make him tell us?  Do we really need this extremely risky- eww, okay okay, gross, put it back on.

The Stock Exchange Heist
After the surprising success of the scientist heist, Bane plans how to bankrupt Bruce Wayne with fraudulent stock trading.

Bane:  ...and then we will ride away on our motorcycles while the transfer completes.  Two of us will still have hostages.
Minion:  How will we get past the roadblocks and spike chains the cops will lay out ahead of us?  They're cops, they'll have radios.
Bane:  The cops will not do that.  They also will not shoot us in the face when we ride out of the exchange, because they will be so surprised.
Minion:  That seems unlikely.  And do we even need to do this?  You can make trades online now, why do we have to take over the building if we already have Wayne's passwords and things?  Even if we get this remote transfer to work, are you telling me they can't just stop it once we leave?
Bane:  I am not inviting you to these meetings again.
Minion:  Now tell me again why we have to shoot our guns randomly at the computers when we enter.  Won't that risk breaking the very things we're there to hack?

Batman speaks with Commissioner Gordon about the final fight, with the police against the armed mob.

Batman:  ...and then everyone march up in a big solid mass to attack the tanks.
Gordon:  They will have three tanks and automatic rifles.  We have a few handguns.  Won't they just mow us down?
Batman:  I will swoop down and destroy one of the tanks.
Gordon:  That still leaves two tanks and an army of trained mercenaries and murderers with assault rifles.  We'll be slaughtered like sheep.
Batman:  This will be so surprising that they will run at your guys and try to club them with their guns.
Gordon:  You have a big gun on your plane, why don't you just shoot twice more and destroy their army of mercenaries?
Batman:  I don't use guns and I don't kill.
Gordon:  You have like twenty guns on your Batpod and you shoot things all the time, and you've probably hurt a bunch of people when you blow up cars to make a path with your cannons.
Batman:  My parents are dead.

Batman and Alfred strategize on how he will fight Bane the second time, after the previous fight's humiliating defeat.

Batman:  ...and after we have blocked the transmission to the bomb, I will beat up Bane.
Alfred:  How?
Batman:  I will hit him.  Really hard.
Alfred:  But you recently had your back broken, and he didn't have any trouble beating you the first time.
Batman:  This time I will hit him in the face to break his mask.
Alfred:  You didn't hit him in the face last time?
Batman:  I will hit him in the face just, like, completely super-hard this time.  I will punch his mask until it breaks, and then I will be the winner.
Alfred:  If you won't shoot him to break his mask, then maybe you can use a batarang or even just a lead pipe, instead of your fist?
Batman:  I am the bat.

09 August 2012

Bean: The Most Terrifying Thing

Some weeks ago, late at night, I was catching up on the news online.  As is my custom, I had a video going in the background - something light that I could safely ignore if necessary.  I had picked it on a whim - Bean: the Movie.  I had previously enjoyed the UK program Mr. Bean and its odd little protagonist, portrayed by Rowan Atkinson, who engages in a creative blend of childish and adult antics, bolstered by Atkinson's talent for physical comedy.  Even though I knew the movie was probably pretty terrible it seemed harmless.

I was so wrong.  So very, very, terrifyingly wrong.  Bean: the Movie is the scariest movie I have ever seen.

What follows is a lengthy explanation of why I think so, and how I survived.

I.  A Harmless Promise

The movie begins with Mr. Bean at home.  But - oh no! - he's late for work and he's broken his teacup!  In a pleasant moment, he indulges the viewer in some buffoonery: the silly man makes tea by pouring a mix of tea leaves, hot water, milk, and spoonfuls of sugar all into his mouth.  While not high comedy, it's a reassuring bit of humor.  We know where we're going, and we must be on safe ground.

Momentarily, Mr. Bean is on his way the prestigious art gallery at which he is employed.  And as we would expect, all is not entirely well at the gallery for Mr. Bean.  The governing board of the museum are plotting to fire him.  They all agree, and are very enthusiastic about the prospect.  It's easy to see why when cut-scenes show Mr. Bean slumping comically to sleep on the floor.

Unfortunately for the board, the chairman of the board sweeps into the room and cuts off their discussion, declaring that Mr. Bean would stay forever.  And here is the first wrong note, the harbinger of the discord to come, for we never find out why the chairman adores Mr. Bean.  We never learn why Mr. Bean is assured of - condemned to? - his place at the gallery.  Mr. Bean will remain, and that is that.

All the stranger, Mr. Bean will later mention that his job at the gallery is to "look at the pictures."  He has no function.  He serves no purpose, for he is a fool and has no ability to discern meaning in art.  The uselessness of Mr. Bean, previously left safely indefinite, has been starkly delineated: he has a job at a museum, forever, where he sits and looks at the pictures but cannot possibly understand them.  There is no end, there is no rhyme or reason, and there is no sense.  It is kafkaesque in its grim pointlessness, and the vision of dark-eyed Mr. Bean sitting on a bench, eyes hollow as he gazes eternally at a picture that holds no meaning, is horrifying.

But we, the audience, don't know all of this yet.  The realization of the terror welling up from behind this movie is still to come, still waiting to loom like a black sunset of madness.  For now, it is just strange.

The board decides to send Mr. Bean to America to rendezvous with a museum there and testify as an expert on the James McNeill Whistler painting, Whistler's Mother.  If they can't fire him, at least they can be rid of him for a few months.  This prompts a few minutes of backstory in Los Angeles, as the staff of the museum discuss the "expert" and prepare for his arrival.

Mr. Bean's journey to America flawlessly and subtly increases the quiet madness lurking behind the banal comedy.  On the plane, he engages in a lighthearted prank on the passenger in front of him: Mr. Bean has found a paper bag, that he's going to inflate and then pop loudly.  The joke is that the bag is actually filled with vomit from a nearby small boy who had been unfortunately airsick moments earlier.

Ordinarily, I'd call this just a bit too crude and a bit too tasteless, but not terribly out-of-bounds.  But in a masterpiece of horror like Bean: the Movie, it cannot be anything other than a careful ratcheting up of our unease, designed to be consciously forgotten even as it unsettles.

To soothe us back into complacency, this is followed by another joke.  Mr. Bean sees the airport police with their guns, and playfully mimics having a gun concealed under his jacket.  They witness this, and a chase ensues, ending only when the collected police of the airport surround the tweedy little man and command him to drop his weapon.  A ring of upraised guns, ready to kill, surround Bean as he mimes putting an imaginary gun on the ground.

After a brief interrogation scene, Mr. Bean is collected by his American compatriot, Dr. Langley.  Langley has been kind enough to offer his own nondescript home to Mr. Bean during the latter's stay in America, a gesture that seems gracious until we recollect that Bean will be in Los Angeles for two months.  Masterfully, it's another blue note of discord, and Langley's wife protests in a very reasonable way against such a lengthy intrusion.  After a fight, Langley agrees to take Mr. Bean to a hotel, instead.

Langley does not take Bean to a hotel.  He takes him back to his own home, as he had wanted and as his wife had refused.  The superficial cause for this is Mr. Bean's behavior on arrival at the museum and a warning that Langley is responsible for Bean.

Unsurprisingly, his incensed spouse takes the children and flees her own home.  So why this madness on Langley's part?  His employer had already offered to get Mr. Bean a hotel room, so it cannot be a financial concern.  And he's never even heard of "Dr. Bean" before, so it can't be a desire for prestige.  We cannot buy the idea that Langley's new responsibility could extend to boarding the man.  There's only one reasonable explanation for why he would insist on this plan, even after ceding to his wife's vigorous refusal: Langley is intent on destroying his marriage, whether he's conscious of it or not.  There is something dreadfully wrong with Langley.

I will pause to speak of the queer incident that disconcerts the museum staff: at his new L.A. gallery place of employment, Mr. Bean stops to use the restroom, and accidentally gets his pants wet.  At the end of a string of contortions he performs to try to dry them, he concludes spread-eagled against the wall, thrusting into the hand-dryer and making soft, soft noises.  Unable to dry himself after being caught by another restroomer, Bean goes to a meeting of the museum staff, but winds up hiding behind a plant and then hunching against the walls.  Mr. Bean splays his legs out and plasters himself to the wall, sliding along it and making soft, soft noises.  Such soft noises.

At Langley's home, he has managed to drive away his family with Mr. Bean.  They have gone, so Langley shows Bean the town.  Naturally, Mr. Bean disdains the high culture and chooses a theme park.  There's a wacky moment at the park where Bean tampers with a ride and throws it into dangerously high gear - only the second bit of pure and innocent levity in the movie.  It's a reminder of that initial scene with the tea, harmless and childlike in its humor.  The police arrest Mr. Bean again and release him again because he's so very wacky.

This is what you're missing, says this moment of the movie.  This is what you're not watching.  This is a taste of what you won't see.

II.  All Is Lost

Skipping past a few inconsequential scenes, we arrive at the anticipated moment at the museum.  They are going to show the painting, Whistler's Mother, to Bean.  Bean will have to display the knowledge of art that he does not actually possess.  Langley now knows that Bean is not a doctor of art, so he despairs of the deception.

It's a classic set-up, and not really very sinister.  Our terror at the earlier parts of the movie has abated, and so we're ready to enjoy this old joke.  Mr. Bean will look at the painting and say something vague that will be interpreted as profound, as with Peter Sellers' character in Being There.  We'll have a good laugh.  Everything will be okay.  Everything will be okay.

But weirdly, the punchline doesn't arrive.  Instead, the museum staff and Bean stand before the painting as it is revealed privately to them for the first time, so they can appreciate it while they prepare for the big unveiling.  They stand there as the cover slides away and Whistler's Mother comes into view.  But there is no request for comment and no expected humor.  There's only a long and reverent pause as the camera pulls in on the masterwork.  It is an period of veneration.  This is Art.  The museum staff are humbled.  Mr. Bean makes an odd face.  And then they leave him to appreciate it alone.

Here.  This is the moment.  Mr. Bean stares at the painting.  He leans in, snuffling and squinting.  It's some physical comedy from a man with a rubber face, and he burbles his sounds as he examines this odd object.  He does not know the painting.  He does not know why it is good.  He is an unfeeling stone or incurious insect: Mr. Bean looks but the world is alien.

And then he sneezes.  And the entire movie is summed up in this instant, as he goofily sneezes and his face contorts, and it's so funny the way his lips ripple in his amusingly exaggerated sneeze, and he's sneezing on the painting which is funny because it's very valuable, but it's not actually that funny because it's not just valuable it's priceless, and he reaches up with his handkerchief and wipes away the face of Whistler's mother.

As I recount them to you, I can only shudder as I relive these minutes of agony.  Mr. Bean scrubs and musses the painting, then snatches it away and tries to clean it.  It's a parody of comedy now as he goes through the motions of sneaking past guards, all the while carrying a piece of art that just seconds ago had been the subject of awed reflection.  The choice of the filmmakers to use a real and astonishing work of art, rather than an imaginary one without cultural implications, is extremely gutsy.  It turns a piece of lowbrow madcappery into a defacement of the very face of art itself.  Mr. Bean's sneeze has smudged our souls.

In the end, Mr. Bean repairs the painting with a crude pen drawing in place of the exquisite strokes of paint.  He is forced to show it to Langley.  And we can see Langley die a little inside as he is crushed.  It's a purposeful reveal.  Langley had feared for his career and been disgusted with his marriage in some strange way, but now those concerns must seem petty.  His career and family are still in jeopardy, but the looming threat that hangs over them is much worse of itself than the loss of his mere life could ever be.  Because of him, a priceless and groundbreaking and astonishing piece of art is gone.  It is as though Mr. Bean had revealed a secret murder: that which has been done is so much worse than what it threatens to do.  It reveals Langley as a petty and small man.  He is done.

The fact that this terrible thing has been done to a real work of art, rather than a fictitious one, is again what creates the tone of the movie.  That night, after a despairing Langley drinks himself into sleep, Mr. Bean breaks into the museum and replaces the painting with a poster recreation of itself.  He distracts the guard by dosing him with a huge amount of laxative and then locking the bathroom door.  As the guard screams and shrieks and wails and throws himself against the door, Mr. Bean replaces true art with a commercial replica.

The world shits itself as Mr. Bean kills creation.

Naturally, because this is ostensibly a children's movie and not a terrifying voyage into the darkness of men's souls, Mr. Bean's ploy succeeds.  He replaces the painting and no one knows and the next day he gives a vague speech - the Being There speech - that we had expected.  Everyone is happy and everything is okay.  Mr. Bean and Langley are the only ones who know the truth.  But Mr. Bean doesn't understand or care about what has been done.  It is all the worse, then, that Langley must stare at the painting and marvel and smile cringingly about being able to retain his job.  But we know that he cannot really forget.

And nor can I.

03 August 2012


I have posted little in the past few weeks, thanks to an extremely busy recent schedule.  In addition to my thesis and my job working with disabled kids for IDEA services, I am tutoring two classes of a first-year course, readying a paper on Shakespeare for publication, and teaching a few private students on the side.

Apparently I wasn't over-committed enough, though, because I have also entered a poster competition.  Although research posters are far more common in the sciences than in the humanities, the $600 prize is an excellent motivator.

I have a few drafts of posts in the hopper, when I find a free moment, and of course there are numerous books waiting for their reviews.

In site update news, while I'm really not much of a self-promoter, I have added a little tool to the bottom of each post.  It automatically suggests a few related posts that the reader might enjoy, which might help resurrect some of my older posts from the grave.  Enjoy!