It Is Not Immediately Clear If These Are the Young Men

Young men with bike packsFollowing off the journalistic rigor and ethics of the New York Post, I offer you the two young men pictured on the left who are wanted for questioning by the feds about the Boston Marathon bombing. I am not saying that these guys are the suspects, but I have been told that the authorities are circulating pictures of two young men with backpacks. I haven’t seen those pictures, but hey: two young men with backpacks. What more do you need?!

It was not immediately clear if these are the young men in the photos that investigators are looking for. But let me stress: these are (as you can see) two young men with backpacks. Could they have committed this heinous crime? Well, they certainly have backpacks and they could be filled with anything. Also: two young men.

There are, of course, reasons to question whether these are in fact the young men authorities are looking for. First, the photo looks suspiciously staged. What’s with that “thumbs up” gesture? Are they taunting us? Second, they don’t seem to be at the Boston Marathon. But terrorists are cunning that way. And third, I just grabbed a photo at random off the internet, so I think it is unlikely to be the actual suspects.

On the other hand: two boys, backpack, and (this is the clincher, I think) one of them is kind of dark skinned. Makes you wonder. But it is not immediately clear if these are the young men in the photos that investigators are looking for. And let us not forget that the authorities do have photos and this is, in fact, a photo.

Afterword

If the New York Post wants to hire me based on this story, they know where to find me.

H/T Buy Me a Toy for the image.

Mirrors and Bad Lighting on Curiously Clever

Andrea EnglishAndrea just wrote an interesting article at our other blog Curiously Clever. In it, she discusses the Dove company’s attempts to brand itself as “not anti-woman.” As we all know, much of the media is focused on making women (and increasingly men) feel bad about themselves and in need of beauty products and more to keep people from crossing to the other side of the street just to be near them. Andrea has this idea that it is all a big of Machiavellian cleverness. Who’d have guessed?

It includes two really good videos. Check it out:

Happy 25th Convention Against Torture

Kade CrockfordIt is the 25th anniversary of Ronald Reagan signing the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Ah, the good ol’ days, when being against torture was bipartisan! Today, the problem is that one of our political parties is in favor of torture and the other, while not being for it, doesn’t think it is important enough to do anything about. Remember “Obama of the Looking Forward”? He’s still president. As I’ve discuss, that won’t do. Part of moving forward is administering justice about the past. And as long as we pretend that past wrong doing never occurred, it is destined to occur again.

Glenn Greenwald posted the excellent photo below from Kade Crockford of the Massachusetts ACLU. I love it. There definitely is the sense that the Obama administration is too busy fixing the world than to bother, you know, fixing the world. Regardless, it is important to remember the Convention Against Torture. This should be a day to celebrate it. Unfortunately, it is not. And it will not be until we look back at what we’ve done so we can authentically move forward.

Convention Against Torture

Slow Economy Causes Government Debt

Arindrajit DubeYou may remember earlier this week, I referenced an article by Mike Konczal and his excellent summary of the problems in the famous Reinhart and Rogoff (R&R) paper. The original paper claimed that high government debt led to slow economic growth. The primary argument against this work was that R&R had the causation backwards: in reality, slow economic growth leads to high government debt. Well, yesterday, Konczal published an article by a young economist at Amherst, Arindrajit Dube. In it, he shows, using their own data, that R&R do indeed have the causation backwards.

Dube asked the simplest of questions, “Does a high debt-to-GDP ratio better predict future growth rates, or past ones?” Put another way: does the high debt come before an economic slump or after it? If it comes before, that would indicate that R&R are right: debt causes the economy to tank. But if debt comes after the economy tanks, then R&R are wrong: a poor economy leads to high government debt.

To answer this question, Dube looked at the economic growth in the three years before high government debt. And then he looked at the economic growth in the three years after high government debt. The results: the economic growth is low before the high debt, not after. In other words, slow economic growth causes high government debt, not the other way around. In still other words, R&R are wrong.

What is most amazing to me about this is how slipshod the work of R&R is turning out to be. When I did this kind of work for a living, I took great care. We were always looking for trends and correlations. But in doing so, we would test the data from every imaginable angle. What Dr. Dube has done is this kind of standard work. But it is all the more striking because it is exactly the kind of work you would do if you were arguing (which R&R did outside their paper) that high debt was causing slow growth. The fact that they did no such tests, indicates to me that their work is more political apologia than it is economics.

Three cheers for Arindrajit Dube and his incisive debunking of an important conservative economic canard.

Afterword

If the name Arindrajit Dube sounds familiar, it may be because a couple of months ago, I wrote about his thinking on the minimum wage and the EITC. He’s a brilliant guy.

Perceived Beauty vs Mirrors and Bad Lighting

It’s difficult being a first world woman. I don’t worry about where my next meal will come from, but I am concerned about it’s probable effect on my waistline. I don’t worry about dying at 60, but I dread what I may look like when I get there. We pick ourselves apart from the inside out, with an insatiable insecurity that marketing companies force feel like a foie gras goose. The boys of That Mitchell and Webb Look summed it up nicely.

So I appreciate any counter balance to our culture’s constant, insidious criticism. Remember when Jamie Lee Curtis did that photo shoot for More magazine? Seeing her with no make-up, no airbrushing and looking like an average woman was refreshing. It made me feel better about myself for about three minutes.

Dove®, purveyor of hygiene and beauty necessities, has been trying to lift its head out of the advertising swill of by appealing to women’s self-esteem; not by crushing it, but by bolstering it. Their Campaign for Real Beauty is aimed at the same market of dissatisfied women, but tries to curry favor with compliments rather than implied disappointment. Unfortunately, I am far too cynical to believe this manoeuvre isn’t a bit disingenuous; like every other advertiser, Dove is still using kind lighting and probably a little photoshopping. What we end up with are Illusions of empowerment that manipulate even as they encourage.

Regardless, having been slowly crushed by advertising since I was a child (remember those Breck girls?), Dove’s approach does make me feel better. So when I read about Dove’s most recent attempt to rescue the alienated consumer, I was intrigued.

Dove is on a mission. Ever since their Real Beauty campaign launched in 2004, the personal care brand has been saying one thing loud and clear: Women are fine just the way we are.

If you’re one of the people who struggles to believe them, the latest addition to the series just might convince you that you may need to rethink your approach.

Dove hired an FBI-trained police sketch artist to draw women – first, based on the women’s descriptions of themselves, then based on how others described them.

In nearly every instance, the pictures were starkly different – the women describing themselves had been [notably] harsh and the resulting image often not appealing. When another person described the very same face, however, the differences were positively dramatic.

Impressive, right? Not really. First of all, the women seem to have been hand-picked from a Build Your Self-esteem workshop. This could just as easily have been an ad for antidepressants.

Then there’s the “objective” opinions of strangers. No decent person is going to chat with a newly introduced, amiable person and then, immediately afterwards on camera, describe that person’s appearance in anything but a kind light. I can only imagine that the entire process of choosing subjects and observers was carried out much like a jury selection.

Dove’s tactics, while still somewhat Machiavellian, are at least not so subtly disparaging as their competitors and that’s a good thing. When it comes to a woman’s self-image, even lip-service is comforting.


My real problem with the whole thing is the terrible police sketches. It’s no wonder rapists and murderers so often elude capture.

Would Jesus Be a Republican?

Rapture ReadyI found an amusing little article over at the vile website Rapture Ready, Would Jesus Vote Republican? The answer: Jesus would not have been a Democrat or a Republican, but clearly the Republican Party is far more godly so you better vote Republican. Fun times!

The section that discusses why Jesus would not be a Republican only gives one reason: the Democratic Party charge that the Republicans are the party of the greed is not “without a degree of legitimacy.” That’s it. It then goes on about original sin and the fact that men are greedy. And ends with an argument for why the Republican Party is the “sound” choice. And note: this is before they even get to the section on voting Republican!

I can come up with some other reasons why Jesus might not be a Republican. It isn’t just a question of greed. The Republican Party makes idols out of money and those who have money. That goes against Commandments one and two, and Jesus said we needed to follow the Jewish law. The Republican Party is very much interested in mocking and abusing the poor. Jesus didn’t dig on that. And the Republican Party is a jingoist group, which is thus idolatrous and violent. But those at Rapture Ready don’t care about any of this. That’s because they are too busy focusing on the Democratic Party.

According to these evil, heartless, bigots, Jesus would not be a Democrat because of abortion, gay rights, and (I love this one!) “a general hostility to Bible-believing Christians.” I think it is fascinating how a religious issue that has only been around for decades, abortion, is thrown onto Jesus. It also strikes me as absurd that the vast majority of anti-abortion Christians have no problem with birth control, when every argument you can make against abortion can also be made against the use of condoms. (And male masturbation!)

As for gay right: okay, I’ll accept that Jesus hated fags. He never said he liked them, the Old Testament said they should be killed, and he said to follow Jewish law. But there is another way to look at the gay rights issue. It could be that the Bible was written by a bunch of bigots and that it has nothing to do with God. Shocking, I know. But just imagine!

As for the Democratic Party having a hostility toward Bible-believing Christians, this completely exposes Rapture Ready for what it is: cultural Christian. The vast majority of Democrats are Christians. But they aren’t the right kind of Christians; they aren’t conservative Christians. So why doesn’t Rapture Ready just come out and say it? It would be a lot easier: conservative Christians should vote Republican because it is the conservative party. I’d accept that.

What is so offensive about Rapture Ready (and the conservative Christian movement generally), is that it claims to speak for all Christians. But of course it doesn’t. Conservative Christians are only spouting what their pastors have told them—what everyone they know believes. It doesn’t come from a close study of the Bible. And that’s why it all degenerates into cultural feuds and “serious” discussions of how God wants you to vote Republican. Pathetic.

Don’t Primary Red State Democrats

PurityAfter a string of clueless attempts to be iconoclastic, Jonathan Chait managed to write something that is both iconoclastic and right, Senate Democrats Wise to Block Background Checks. His argument is very simple: red state Democrats have to make some non-liberal votes to maintain credibility with their voters; this bill was almost completely useless, or as Chait puts it, “a compromise of a compromise”; therefore this was a good bill to vote against. And as I noted on Monday, the final law could have been much worse than nothing at all.

One thing that Chait doesn’t mention is that as much as these red state Democrats may annoy us from time to time, they are very strong members of the team. In fact, currently the Democratic Party has more disciple in the Senate than the Republican Party. So the calls I’m hearing from certain corners that we should primary these red state Democrats are just crazy.

There is a related issue that I think is really important. Democratic politicians from blue states are often quite conservative, especially on economic issues. Dianne Feinstein, from my own great state of California, comes to mind. When it comes to red state Democrats, a primary would probably end in a Republican winning the general election. But why aren’t we primarying Democrats in blue states?

One of our biggest political problems is that the Republican Party is too extreme and the Democratic Party is not extreme enough. One way to fix this would be to enforce a little ideological purity on our representatives from liberal areas. After all, what makes the Republican Party unacceptable is not that Orrin Hatch of Utah is an extremist. He’s from an extremist state; he should be extremist. But why do the people of the very liberal state of New York have an economic conservative as governor?

So we need to stop this nonsense about primarying red state Democrats and start talking about primarying their blue state counterparts who have no good reason for being as conservative as they are.

Once Upon a Time in the West

Once Upon a Time in the WestLongtime reader and insightful commenter JMF had mentioned a few times that he really liked the Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in the West. I hadn’t thought that much of it, but I’d only seen it once about 20 years ago. So I decided to revisit it. And it was a revelation.

One thing I wouldn’t have noticed 20 years ago is just how beautiful this film is. In fact, I’ve been trying to think of a film that is clearly better and nothing comes to mind. Every shot is beautiful. There is absolutely nothing in the film that does not show great care in terms of art direction, lighting, and camera. Even the rear projection is beautiful.

But the biggest revelation is how political the film is. This shouldn’t be surprising. Leone was generally pretty political, and in ways that I very much agree with. I especially like his comment on power and revolution in Duck You Sucker! (A Fistful of Dynamite). But in Once Upon a Time in the West, he has created an allegory. It tells a story of human initiative and how it is destroyed by the status quo of corporate hegemony. What’s more, we see how these power elites not only use organized crime but are in fact the same thing. There is a great scene where Frank (Henry Fonda) sits behind the desk of Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), the railroad tycoon. Morton asks, “How does it feel sitting behind that desk, Frank?” And Frank responds, “It’s almost like holding a gun, only much more powerful.” Indeed.

There is too much mother/whore nonsense going on in the film about the heroine Jill. But I must admit, Claudia Cardinale is a wonderful actress and one of the prettiest women who ever lived. Her character is very interesting, though. She has done and will do anything she needs to in order to survive. At one point early in the film, she explains herself, “If you want to, you can lay me over the table and amuse yourself. And even call in your men. Well, no woman ever died from that.[1] When you’re finished, all I’ll need will be a tub of boiling water, and I’ll be exactly what I was before—with just another filthy memory.” Unlike Frank and Morton, she has a soul; so she cleans up fine.

One thing that I used to dislike in Leone films that I now see as an advantage is his lack of transitions. In Once Upon a Time in the West, important plot points are simply not shown. Normally they are explained later. For instance, Morton and his men are found all shot up. Who did it? We don’t find out until the very end of the film, although it’s pretty clear. Drama requires that the alpha hero kill the alpha villain and the beta hero kill the beta villain. (And the gamma villain is often referred to as the “dog villain” because drama shortcut for such characters is to have them kick a dog.)

I’m going to re-watch a bunch of Leone films and compare them. But I think JMF is right: Once Upon a Time in the West is probably Sergio Leone’s best film.


[1] For the record, yes, I know: lots of women have died from that.

Women Beware Middleton

Thomas MiddletonClarence Darrow was born on this day in 1857. He was a major player in two of the most important trails of the last century: Scopes (evolution and free speech) and Leopold and Loeb (death penalty). He was a truly great man.

Japanese screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto is 95 today. Rock journalist Robert Christgau is 71. Actor James Woods is 66. SCTV alumnus Rick Moranis is 60. Conan O’Brien is 50. Conservative apologist Niall Ferguson is 49. And actor Maria Bello is 46.

But the day belongs to the great playwright Thomas Middleton, who was born in 1580. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare, but created less insipid plots. To give you some idea, consider the following from Gary Taylor about Middleton’s play Women Beware Women:

What if Romeo and Juliet had lived? What if Romeo had been waiting there when Juliet awoke in the tomb, and the two of them had giddily eloped to Mantua, to live happily ever after? They wouldn’t have any money. Romeo would need to get a job. Juliet would stay at home all day, afraid that her family would find her if she dared to venture out. Alone at home, she’d be bored out of her skull. She’d want Romeo to stay home for sex and conversation every day. Both of them had grown up in wealthy families, and were used to the finer things in life. Juliet would grow increasingly impatient at her new standard of living. She’d start peeking out of the window, wanting to escape the little domestic box in which she’d been entombed alive. One day, a rich older man would see her at her window. She would look at him, looking at her. It’s so much easier to love “till death do us part” if death parts us quickly.

Happy birthday Thomas Middleton!