Jul 23

Poetry: Pieces of a Man

Pieces of a ManJagged jigsaw pieces
Tossed about the room,
I saw my grandma sweeping
With her old straw broom.
But she didn’t know what she was doing.
She could hardly understand,
That she was really sweeping up
Pieces of a man.

I saw my daddy meet the mailman.
And I heard the mailman say,
“Now don’t you take this letter to hard now Jimmy,
Cause they’ve laid off nine others today.”
But he didn’t know what he was saying.
He could hardly understand
That he was only talking to
Pieces of a man.

I saw the thunder and heard the lightning,
And felt the burden of his shame.
And for some unknown reason,
He never turned my way!

Pieces of that letter
Were tossed about that room.
And now I hear the sound of sirens
Come knifing through the gloom.
But they don’t know what they are doing.
They could hardly understand
That they’re only arresting
Pieces of a man.

I saw him go to pieces!
I saw him go to pieces!
He was always such a good man!
He was always such a strong, strong man!
Yeah, I saw him go to pieces.
I saw him go to pieces.

—Gil Scott-Heron
Pieces of a Man

Jul 23

“Education Reform” and the Destruction of Meaning

The Face of Education ReformErik Loomis wrote an article a while back, The Rheeist Scam Goes Global. It’s about Michelle Rhee and the whole “education reform” movement. But I was taken by the cartoon he used, which showed men building a charter school by taking away materials from a close-by public school. I have always thought of “education reform” in terms of intent: the destruction of teacher unions. But until I looked at the cartoon (which is not making this point), I had never really thought about what will be the result of “education reform.”

I think we should be clear about those leading the “education reform” movement. As Deep Throat says in All the President’s Men, “These are not very bright guys.” They know they want to destroy unions. They know they want to turn education into some kind of a factory process. But after that, it’s all faith. It’s like the old Sidney Harris cartoon where the second step in a proof is, “Then a miracle occurs.” That’s the “education reform” movement all over. Step 1: destroy education as we know it. Step 2: then a miracle occurs. Step 3: all people grow up well educated and healthy.

What “Education Reform” Working Would Mean

But let’s give all these reformers the benefit of the doubt. They will change education into employment skills training. And we don’t end up with Idiocracy (which is a tedious film). We end up with something that looks more like the B F Skinner dystopia. It would be like Modern Times but with everyone content doing their jobs because that’s all they would know. The search for meaning would be obsolete because everyone would know the meaning of their lives: to make the owners of Walmart rich.

But none of that would be so bad if it weren’t for the total disregard for everything educational outside what is useful for IBM and Apple.

It made me think of Babe: Pig in the City. More specifically: the most poignant scene in the film. It is when Babe and company free all the animals from the “jail.” Thelonius, the old orangutan, insists upon dressing before they leave, even though time is a factor. He has found a meaning in his life — and he’s too old to change. (He gets the best ending in the film, handing clothespins to Herself.) And I imagine myself that way at 80.

I suppose that all people feel this way to some extent as they grow older. But in general, things change for the better. “Education reform” is moving us in a rather worse direction — ignorantly, but quite deliberately. And for the most base of motives. I mean, who do you think is paying Jonathan Chait’s wife to “reform” education? It’s a bunch of super rich conservatives and neoliberals. How proud they must all be: destroying the very concept of childhood so that Microsoft and Facebook will have a well-trained workforce. It keeps wages down too!

Trivial Meaning

But none of that would be so bad if it weren’t for the total disregard for everything educational outside what is useful for IBM and Apple. You could force children to learn Scratch and still give them time to escape in literature and music and mud pie creation. Instead, what I see is 6 hours of school and 3 hours of mind-numbing homework. No time for novel reading, because reading is meant for technical manuals.

It isn’t like the meaning I find in life is perfect. It is distinctly imperfect and incomplete. But at least I know it is worth the search. I don’t like the idea of being my own version of Thelonius — stupidly looking for meaning when the product of decades of “education reform” has trained society to get with the program and sing the company song.

Jul 22

Cure Income Inequality: Income Mobility! Not So Fast!

Income MobilityAgainst a rising chorus of concern about increasing income inequality, some economists are pushing back, suggesting that it is not income inequality we should be concerned with but rather income mobility. Income mobility describes the ability of individuals to move up and down the income ladder over some period of time. As long as mobility is healthy, they argue, society can remain egalitarian in the face of inequality, because the poor can move up and the rich down.

Intuitively, some observers assume that higher income inequality should be correlated with decreased income mobility as the rich build a bigger lead on the rest of society. But there is little consensus about whether and how income mobility has changed. What little research does exist is inconsistent with regards to findings, methods, and data sources. Equitable Growth grantees Michael D Carr and Emily E Wiemers at the University of Massachusetts-Boston used a new dataset to revisit the measurement of earnings mobility, the part of income that comes from work. Their results suggest that lifetime earnings mobility has declined in recent years.

—Austin Clemens
New Analysis Shows It Is More Difficult for Workers to Move up the Income Ladder

Jul 22

Comparison of a Mixed Bruce Campbell Double Feature

Man with the Screaming Brain/Alien ApocalypseI bought the “2 times the Bruce” Man with the Screaming Brain/Alien Apocalypse DVD[1] and finally sat down and watched both. I’m not going to provide a review of them. I’m going to do a comparison. Because it is remarkable that despite the films being mostly identical, one works brilliantly and the other is almost unwatchable.

Both films were shot in Bulgaria for the Sci-Fi Channel. They are both, well, Bruce Campbell films. The screenplays are both sloppy. The action is at best silly if not just bad. And otherwise, they are competently executed television movies. In fact, I thought the camera work was pretty good and the lighting often excellent. And the editor of both, Shawn Paper, is a real pro who makes both films work better than they ought to. So why is Man with the Screaming Brain such a joy and Alien Apocalypse such a tiresome bore?

Alien Apocalypse

As longtime readers know, I have my preferences, but ultimately my interest is in whether a film works on its own terms. And Alien Apocalypse does not. It tries. It has its moments, although none come quickly to mind. The biggest problem is that the script (by writer-director Josh Becker) doesn’t even try to be clever or wacky or whatever that is that makes a Bruce Campbell film a Bruce Campbell film. It seems to just assume everyone will “get” it because he’s doing his thing.

The plot is so predictable that it actually tricked me once. There was a scene late in the film that implied that the reformed bad guy had turned. But for people who watch a lot of movies, well, it’s an obvious reversal — the time when the questionable guy saves the hero from someone you would have never suspected. But no. It turns out the bad guy does exactly what the most naive film-goer would think. In addition, the dialog is just awful.

Glasshouses and All

Interestingly, I heard just a couple of minutes of the commentary for the film. And all I heard was Becker complaining that the stunt men in Bulgaria really weren’t that good. That’s certainly true; but they were far more competent than he was as the writer of this film.

One technical aspect of Alien Apocalypse that was bothersome was the unbelievable amount of looping and off camera audio. It’s very much like watching a spaghetti western. But I’ll concede that I would have found this charming if the script hadn’t been so terrible.

Man with the Screaming Brain

Maybe it isn’t right to compare Alien Apocalypse to Man with the Screaming Brain. The former film did, apparently, have only half the budget. And it had to pay for a fair amount of special effects — both digital and practical. But the problem with the film is not its look. What makes Man with the Screaming Brain work is that it is a soup of lunacy.

Co-written and directed by Campbell himself, Man With the Screaming Brain revels in its senselessness. If you don’t like this sequence, you might like the next. It has the feel of a farce. Ted Raimi spends most of the film drinking Red Bull, waiting around to be in the right place to drag yet another dead body back to the lab. His character is tasked with finding the others, but he’s not much interested. When one character gets away on a bus, he doesn’t think to get in his van and follow it.

More Than Just Silly

Most of the film is like that. Yet it has momentum. And it is all setting up pieces of the plot for a denouement that is quite satisfying. What’s more, as Man with the Screaming Brain moves along, we learn more about the principle characters. They become more human, even as two dead people are combined into a single brain, and the female lead gets placed into a robot — all gloriously indifferent to the first word in “science fiction.”

(Note: one of the funniest conventions in science fiction films of the 1950s was to put in some kind of plausible-sounding scientific explanation. For example, there was some reason that Glenn’s heart is not growing at the same rate as the rest of his body in The Amazing Colossal Man. Like anyone cares! I mean: let’s have more scenes in the circus tent!)

One Works, One Doesn’t

I think that ultimately, Man with the Screaming Brain works because Campbell (and co-writer David Goodman) didn’t have that much confidence in Bruce Campbell the actor. And so they give him a bunch of things to do — like pour milk all over his head because he claims his brain is on fire. It’s actually because, well, it’s totally insane. And if you don’t like that scene, some different insanity is 30 seconds away.

Alien Apocalypse just gives us Bruce going up the mountain and Bruce coming down the mountain. He gives a couple of over-the-top speeches along the way. There is side material, but it is banal: the slaves act like slaves; then they see Campbell as a demigod. You can skimp on just about anything in a movie. But if you don’t start with a good script (or just one with a lot of good material), you’re lost.

But you should see Alien Apocalypse, because it is parodied in My Name Is Bruce.

[1] It shouldn’t amaze me, but it still does, when people selling movies seem to care not in the least about those movies. At Amazon, under “special features” it states, “None.” For a Bruce Campbell collection, that’s kind of important, given his fan base. Special features are greatly valued by freaks like me. Well, both these DVDs are loaded with extras. Maybe it isn’t as good as the extras on My Name Is Bruce, but it’s still impressive. “None.” Just brilliant.

Jul 21

Larry Miller’s The Secret of Skiing

Larry MillerWhen I was a teen, there was some comedy competition that ran on HBO or something. It was first done regionally. And then the winners of each regional one met. As I recall, Eddie Murphy won. Now I think Murphy is one of the best comedic actors ever. But I never thought much of him as a stand-up comic. It just doesn’t play to his skills. But in that competition, I discovered the comedian Larry Miller. He was interesting in one particular way: he was the only comedian who did a different routine in the final than he had done in the region — an indication of his greatness.

One of the routines he did was “The Secret of Skiing.” It was about 8 minutes long. But I found a version online that is 35 minutes long. I don’t know if the routine has grown over the years or if he just whittled it down to 8 minute for the competition. It doesn’t matter. It’s magnificent. He’s really an old style comedian. He reminds me of Shelley Berman, although I think Larry Miller is actually more talented.

You owe it to yourself to listen to this. After all these years, I laughed myself silly. Of course, my opinion of skiing is pretty much the same as his — and the goat’s (listen and you’ll know what I’m talking about).

Jul 21

Cognac Is Brandy?! You Don’t Say!

CognacI saw a curious article in Forbes titled, 6 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Cognac. Okay, okay, okay! I admit everything! I couldn’t stop myself from clicking on it! But here’s the thing: I didn’t click on it for my usual reason: that I think I’m so knowledgeable. The truth is that I don’t know much about cognac other than that it is the only kind of widely available brandy that is at all drinkable. And that it comes from Cognac, France. And, of course, that it is regulated by the government like the rest of the French alcohol industry.

No, I was struck by the parenthetical “probably.” The article is, after all, in Forbes. And I suspect that the sort of person who reads Forbes thinks of themselves as pretty sophisticated. So throwing the “probably” in the title is a sop to their more insecure readers. The truth is, I was expecting to learn some things from the article. And I did! For example, I found out that cognac is rated from worst to best as: VS, VSOP, XO, and Extra.

Cognac Is All About Quality

This explains something that has been bothering me. I recently bought some cognac and I found that I didn’t like it as much as I remembered. So I just checked the label, and it is VS. I’m used to VSOP. So there you go!

But I was shocked by this line in the article, “It’s basically brandy.” Well, I can’t say that I knew that, because it is wrong.

But I was shocked by this line in the article, “It’s basically brandy.” Well, I can’t say that I knew that, because it is wrong. Cagnac is brandy. The statement in the article is like saying, “The Porsche 918 Spyder is basically a car.” I would assume that anyone who had ever tasted cognac would know that it is brandy. I’m not very aware of the outside world. Yet even with my tenuous grip on reality I am able to discern that it is brandy based upon my amazing ability to taste food and drink.

Forbes Readers Are Ignorant Snobs

Then it hit me: of course readers of Forbes would be surprised to learn that cognac is brandy. So surprised, in fact, that the article has to hedge on this fact. “It’s basically brandy.” If you look at a bottle of Hennessy, you will not find the word “brandy” anywhere. In the past, I’ve drunk cognac, not because I have a special fondness for it but simply because it was the best brandy that was readily available.

But for the Forbes set, it is probably a big deal that cognac is this thing that is expensive and thus good. For them, it is categorically different from brandy. So I image the editors concerned about this. “If we just say it is brandy, we’ll get angry letters!” But the most interesting thing about this is that for the Forbes reader, the fact that cognac is brandy probably was one thing they didn’t know about cognac. And it’s very sad. Or hilarious. It depends upon your perspective.

Jul 20

A Somewhat Less Menacing Mark Zuckerberg

Mark ZuckerbergThis movie [Batman vs Superman] is not good, but I liked it more than I expected. Wonder Woman is in the film for some reason, and Jesse Eisenberg decides to play Lex Luthor as a somewhat less menacing, less dangerous version of Mark Zuckerberg.

I’m going to credit that last as an actual decision and not an accident, and it’s… interesting. Maybe the point is that Luthor has never conceived of a scheme to dominate the lives of everyday people so grandiose, and so completely successful, as Facebook? Would Batman or Superman have destroyed the algorithm on Zuckerberg’s dorm room window?

—Robert Farley
Movies on a Plane

Jul 20

Exercise, Weight Loss, and Your Perfect Weight

Weight LossWill sent me a video from the Vox folks, Things We Can’t Explain: Donald Trump’s Board Game. I think he thought it was just a comedy video. And he’s right: it is funny. But there’s Ezra Klein and Dylan Matthews. It’s fun to see them, and the video is worth checking out. But it led me to another Vox video, The Science Is In: Exercise Isn’t the Best Way to Lose Weight. I’m pretty sure I read the article when it first came out, so I wasn’t shocked. Just the same, the video had a greater resonance with me, since I had a recent weight loss.

Up until about 7 years ago, I was very skinny. I mean, very. I tried not to see my naked torso in the mirror because it reminded me of victims of Auschwitz. I mean, it wasn’t that bad, but it certainly brought back childhood memories of watching that Alfred Hitchcock documentary about the liberation of the camps and the horrors discovered. But about 7 years ago, I put on 50 pounds rather suddenly. And since then I’ve stayed at that weight consistently. It is easier to see myself in the mirror now.

Weight Gain, Weight Loss

But I wasn’t happy about the weight gain. I would have wished for something more like 25-30 pounds. So over the years I have changed my diet and exercised — all in an effort at weight loss. Nothing really happened. This wasn’t surprising. When I was skinny, I tried to gain weight, and experienced a similar lack of success. My body, it has always seemed, wants to be whatever weight it is.

Then, last week, I was walking over to my healthcare provider. I noticed that I had to keep pulling up my normally quite tight jeans. And sure enough, I found that I had lost about 10 pounds. I figured that my recent efforts to walk more (just to get away from the computer) had acted as a weight loss program without my noticing. But no.

It’s All About the Thyroid

My sister reminded me that I was on thyroid medication. Indeed I am! Three months ago, a blood test showed that while I was mostly in good health, my thyroid was greatly under-performing. A normal range is up to 4.5, and I was at almost 20. And two months later, on the medication, it is exactly where it should be: right about one. And this is undoubtedly why I lost weight. I’m sure that I’m back to a stable weight again.

One reason that exercise doesn’t help much with weight loss is because your behavior and metabolism change as a result. I know about the first part of that. When I used to exercise a lot — running every day — I ate a lot more. I wouldn’t doubt that my metabolism also slowed down during the rest of the day when I wasn’t running.

Exercise Can Help!

There is, of course, a great reason to exercise. It makes us feel better. It improves our attitude. It calms us. And maybe in that way, exercise can help with weight loss: by making us not care.

It reminds me of a poem by Kristen McHenry, “Perfect Weight.” I can’t find the book right now, but I did find this snippet (that I quoted), which contains the important part:

You will kneel to bless the dead
hive of your pelvis. The body
is an intermission; wait for the toss
and hurl of rebirth. Emerge, sanctified and black.
Hover above the scale; note
the number. This is your perfect weight.

Weight loss, I fear, is a capitalist plot.

Jul 19

US Government’s Obscene Assassination Justification

Jeremy Scahill - ImminentObama has before compared the drone program to dealing with a sniper on a roof of a building who is pointing the rifle at children on a playground. And he say, you know, “I understand what the ACLU’s objections are and human rights people and stuff. But do we need to go to a judge to get authorization to take that shooter down before he kills a bunch of kids on a playground? No we don’t.” And I think… everyone in this room agrees with that. If you have someone who’s going to kill a bunch of kids, and they’re a sniper, and they’re not responding to any kind of attempts to get them to put the rifle down, people in this society overwhelmingly would say, “Yes. If we need to kill that person we’ll kill them.”

The problem is, that’s a fake analogy. They have never provided a shred of evidence that a single person that they’ve killed in a drone strike represented an imminent threat to US persons or the security of the United States. They have never given a shred of evidence to suggest that they killed someone en route to putting a bomb on a plane. I guarantee you, because this White House leaks like crazy, if they had that evidence they would put it out there…

If their standard was just that we’re killing people that we think maybe in the future might in certain circumstances try to encourage others to commit acts of terrorism — If that was the policy! — okay, that’s what they’re doing. But that’s not what they say the policy is. They say the policy is we’re targeting people who represent an imminent — “imminent” is their word — threat to US interests, US persons, and US facilities around the world. If that’s the standard then you have to say then what is the definition of the word “imminent.”

There was a white paper of the Justice Department leaked in advance of John Brennan’s confirmation hearings to be CIA director, that had a definition of the word “imminent” not even the most barely literate English speaker would recognize as the definition of “imminent.” It basically was like if you ever thought about terrorism in your life, we can kill you in a drone strike.

—Jeremy Scahill
The Government’s Secret War with Drones

Jul 19

Neanderthals Might Have Stopped Us All from Being Donald Trump

NeanderthalsAs many of you know, I have a soft spot for losers. Even when a clear serial killer is on trial, I feel bad for them. And as a result, I’ve long felt somewhat protective of the Neanderthals. Over three years ago, I wrote, Are Humans Better than Neanderthals? That was about how documentaries, which are usually quite objective when it comes to all other species, became really bigoted when it came to this close relative. Well, now I’ve learned a little bit more about Neanderthals, and it too is presented in a biased way.

The Economist published, A Parthian Shot. Okay, first: enough with the pun headlines! I know it sucks to have to work for a bunch of libertarian idiots (even if you are one yourself), but this pun barely even makes sense! And then the subtitle of the article is, “Neanderthals’ parting gifts to Homo sapiens were disease-causing genes.” But this is distinctly not what the article says!

Neanderthals “Gifted” Us Various Things

The article itself says that they did gift us some disease-causing genes, but some of those very same genes may be responsible for our surviving as a species. For example:

Some genes might put their bearers at risk of obesity in the modern world of fatty, sugary snacks. But in a world where food is scarce (as it presumably was in the northern latitudes where modern humans and Neanderthals mixed), those same genes might help their owners through lean periods.

But there’s an obvious response to this: what about the diseases that come from our ancient Homo sapiens ancestors? Humans are between 1% and 4% Neanderthal. That means that all those genetic diseases that don’t come from them comes from ancient humans and later mutations. Obviously, we need to ask, “Who exactly is ‘us’?”

We Aren’t Neanderthals; Nor Are We Ancient Humans

When a donkey and a horse mate, we call the offspring a mule or hinny. In almost all cases, they are infertile. But what if they were like humans and Neanderthals? Suppose you get a half breed that then mates with a human? Okay: one-quarter Neanderthal, but certainly not “human.” We are not the humans of 40,000 years ago. Around that time, the two species and a couple of other related ones interbred and created what we are today. And doubtless that increase in genetic diversity was really helpful to us.

Two years ago, I wrote, You Are a Neanderthal! which pointed out that part of our DNA was strictly from them. But the truth is that we aren’t Neanderthals — I was just writing for effect. We are what we are. And that’s part Neanderthal, part ancient human, and parts unknown. We should embrace this!

Neanderthals Could Save Us from Trump

And here’s something to think about. Given that we modern humans are a lot more related to the ancient humans than we are Neanderthals, that means that the ancient humans out competed them — more of the specific ancient human genes survived. And that makes me think that the best of what we are might be Neanderthal. When you watch Donald Trump accept the Republican nomination for President, think: that’s what separates us from the Neanderthals; Donald Trump is why we needed those Neanderthal genes.

Jul 18

Some Law Professor on “Exclusion” of BLM

Anonymous Law Professor - Black Lives MatterThere is a difference between focus and exclusion. If something matters, this does not imply nothing else does. If I saw “Law Students Matter” it does not imply that my colleagues, friends, and family do not. Here is something else that matters: context. The Black Lives Matter Movement arose in a context of evidence that they don’t. When people are receiving messages from the culture in which they live that their lives are less important than other lives, it is a cruel distortion of reality to scold them for not being inclusive enough…

There are some implicit words that precede “Black Lives Matter,” and they go something like this:

Because of the brutalizing and killing of black people at the hands of the police and the indifference of society in general and the criminal justice system in particular, it is important that we say that…

This is, of course, far too long to fit on a shirt.

Black Lives Matter is about focus, not exclusion. As a general matter, seeing the world and the people in it in mutually exclusive, either/or terms impedes your own thought process. If you wish to bear that intellectual consequence of a constricting ideology, that’s your decision. But this does not entitle you to project your either/or ideology onto other people who do not share it.

—Anonymous Law Professor
Law Professor’s Response to BLM Shirt Complaint

H/T: Elizabeth

Jul 18

Fact Checking 2 Minutes of Donald Trump on 60 Minutes

Donald Trump: Fact CheckingDonald Trump was on 60 Minutes last night for what turned out to be a softball interview. He was allowed to say anything and wasn’t countered on anything. I watched just two minutes of it and was overwhelmed with everything he said that was flat out wrong.

Donald Trump: “We need strong borders. We have people coming to our country who can't be vetted properly. They don't have paperwork. They don't have anything. We don't even know where they come from.”
This is a lie. Trump is well aware of the fact that the United States has an extensive vetting program in place for those who seek refugee status in the United States.
Donald Trump: “Look, we have people that hate us. We have people that want to wipe us out. We have people that, if given the chance, will try to wipe us out.”
This is glaringly inaccurate. ISIS is not in favor of wiping us out for no reason. They have a real desire to establish a purely Islamic state based on the time from about 2 centuries after the Prophet Mohammad existed. By now, Trump should know this and to say otherwise is a lie.
Donald Trump: “And, as you know and as everyone knows, I was against the war in Iraq. I was totally against it, because I said it would destabilize the Middle East. And it has. That's exactly what has happened. It was a very bad decision. The way President Obama got us out of that war was a disaster.”
No we don’t know. Because the only thing he said about it was in March of 2003 when he said it was a mess. Not that he opposed it. Opposing a poorly run war is not opposing the actual start of the war.
Donald Trump: “And we are going to have surrounding states and very importantly, get NATO involved, because we support NATO far more than we should, frankly, because you have a lot of countries that are not doing what they are supposed to be doing.”
NATO has been involved in dealing with the Syrian and ISIS war since 2014. The individual member states are all involved and have been working to get rid of the group.
Donald Trump: “We have to wipe out ISIS. And speaking of Turkey, Turkey is an ally. Turkey can do it by themselves. But they have to be incentivized. For whatever reason, they are not. So, we have no choice.”
Actually this is something Turkey has said they can’t do themselves and they asked for help a long time ago.
Donald Trump: “Hillary Clinton invented ISIS with her stupid policies. She is responsible for ISIS. She led Barack Obama, because I don't think he knew anything. I think he relied on her.”
A woman. Invented a misogynist regime that enslaves women. No.

That was two minutes of Donald Trump on what was once a great place for reporting.

Older posts «