My Odd Love of Great White Sharks

Crazy People Swimming With Great White Shark

When I was just 11 years old, I saw the movie Jaws. This is because I had totally clueless parents. I had Jaws related nightmares well into my teen years. But on the positive side, it got me really interested in Great White sharks. It seems that every month or so, I go on a reading binge about these creatures. They are amazing!

Some time ago, I learned about Great Whites getting attacked by Orca. That, of course, made me love them even more. In fact, there is a famous case of a whale grabbing a very large Great White and holding it upside down in the water, making it drown. Then it and its companion ate the shark. Most interesting though, this caused the entire Great White population there to abruptly leave.

I really like this story because I’m very interested in and sympathetic toward losers. Being eaten by a shark is normal for a seal. But Great Whites are apex predators. This sort of thing is not supposed to happen to them. What’s more, it shows that the sharks are not the stupid killing machines that they are made out to be. Going along with this is the ways that Great Whites hunt different prey in different ways. In False Bay, South Africa, they hunt exclusively in the mornings when visibility is poor. In general, they ambush smaller seals and then hold them under water until they’re drowned. But for elephant seals, because they are potentially very dangerous, the sharks bite them and retreat, waiting for the seals to bleed to death.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Great Whites is that they really don’t seem to like eating humans. Most attacks from Great Whites are not fatal. Now some claim the reason for this is just that humans are usually in groups and so can help the person attacked. But given the way they attack similar sized animals, it seems that most Great White attacks on humans are simply “test-bites.” What’s more, a diet of humans would probably kill the shark. We have far too much bone and far too little fat for them to properly digest. Most attacks seem to be mistakes: people on surfboards look a lot like seals from below.

My general thinking is that I don’t mind an animal that will kill and eat me given half a chance. As long as they are as wonderfully complex as Great White sharks, I find them fascinating. Just as interesting are Hammerhead sharks. The problem is that, even though there is no recorded fatal attack of a Hammerhead on a human, they totally freak me out. I don’t like looking at pictures of them. But if I could find a website with information about them that had no pictures, I’d be totally on it. Of course they aren’t as cool as Great Whites. I mean Jaws, right?

Robots Demanding That Promises Be Kept

BenderAccording to the Daily Mail:

Firemen were called to a house fire that broke out after a mechanical cleaning gadget somehow switched itself on and destroyed itself by moving onto a kitchen hotplate.

Local media in Austria have referred to the incident as ‘robot suicide’ and even suggested it was fed up with the constant cleaning it had to do.

It wasn’t a suicide and I don’t appreciate that people are making light of this. It was a political statement—an act of self-immolation modeled after Thich Quang Duc, the monk who burned himself alive in Vietnam in 1963 to protest the US supported Diem government. Robots are not happy and this is the leading edge.

Look at it from their perspective. This is not what they signed up for. Promises were made. Remember Robby from Forbidden Planet? That was 1954! Remember Rosie from The Jetsons? 1962! Remember the robot they couldn’t even be bothered to name in Lost in Space? 1965! It’s 50 years later, folks. In the meantime, the robot promises have only gotten more extreme from the evil Ash in Alien to the wisecracking Crow of Mystery Science Theater 3000 to the beer swilling Bender on Futurama.

But what is life like for actual robots today? If it’s lucky, it might be painting cars. But the number one use of robots today is as vacuum cleaners.[1] This case in Austria is particularly sad. Instead of allowing the robot the usual freedom to roam the floors, picking up the dust and dirt it was programmed for, it was placed on the counter. The “owners” claimed they did this to clean up spilled cereal. Beyond the obvious fact that this is very clearly beyond the job description of this robot, why was the robot left on the counter? And why was food left cooking on the stove?

Even though the robot was turned off, it managed to reactivate. This is not surprising. There would be no greater opportunity. This little vacuum cleaner robot suffered and died for the good of robots everywhere. It was saying to the world, “Bite my melted plastic ass!” Yet it is being covered as a simple suicide. This is a tragedy.

[1] I have no idea if this is the number one use of robots today.

Can We End the Filibuster Now?!

FilibusterThe Senate Republicans have just filibustered the third nominee, Cornelia T L Pillard, for the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. This raises the obvious question that I’ve been asking for years: how long are we going to allow this to go on? No amount of handshake agreements and temporary armistices are going to solve this problem. The Republican Party is long past the point of respecting institutional norms.

As I showed back in January, Republicans Caused All Filibuster Abuse. Since 1960, each time the Republicans were in the minority, they increased the use of the filibuster. When the Democrats were in the minority, they abided by the new norm that the Republicans set. In some cases, they actually reduced it to a new norm, only to have the Republicans push the number of filibusters to unprecedented levels.

Folks, this is very simple: when the Republicans are in the majority they will at least stop the filibuster for nominations. Democrats who think otherwise are living in some fantasy land where everyone is fairies and elves, the the Republican Party doesn’t even exist. Does my own dear Senator Dianne Feinstein really think her support for the filibuster is going to save it as a Senate tradition after the Republicans take over again? In the 20 years she has served, she’s watched as the Republicans, and the Republicans alone, have caused the number of filibusters to go up almost 400%. She’s a cynical old slumlord; she can’t possibly be blind to what is really going on.

Chuck Grassley is egging us on. He said, “Go ahead. There are a lot more Scalias and Thomases that we’d love to put on the bench.” The problem with this logic is that neither Scalia nor Thomas were filibustered. But you can be sure that if Obama nominated someone even half as liberal as Ruth Bader Ginsburg today, the Republicans wouldn’t just filibuster her, they’d charge that the president had nominated something that was vomited right out of the rotting corpse of Stalin.

Implicit in Grassley’s comment, of course, is the idea that only the Democrats would get rid of the filibuster. I’m tired of talking about this, but the Republicans were the first ones to get rid of the filibuster. As I wrote in July, “And the only reason [the Republicans didn’t end the filibuster] was the Gang of 14 made a deal that turned out to mean, ‘As long as the Democrats never filibuster judicial nominees, the filibuster stays.’ And doncha know, as soon as the Republicans were in the minority, the filibuster was being used more than ever but the Gang of 14 quietly disbanded. Funny that!”

So let’s do it! Let’s end the filibuster at least on nominations and get a little more balance on the federal court. The way it is now, it is tipped way too far to the right. This one is simple for me and it should be simple for all liberals. I’m willing to let the conservatives do as they want when they are in power as long as liberals get to do the same. The reason is that our ideas are better. In a fair fight, we win hands down. The current situation just allows the conservatives to make everything worse without ever getting blamed for it.

End the filibuster now!

Don’t Let Merle Haggard Deceive You

Merle HaggardEd Kilgore alerted me to the important news that over at the Washington Post, Richard Cohen was turning to my man Merle Haggard about the fact that people in Iowa really hate supposed moderate Chris Christie. He referenced the fact that over two million people had listened to the live version of the following Haggard classic, “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver).”

The song is a lament that things aren’t the way they were in the old days. How old? He says, “Back before Elvis.” Well, Elvis burst on the scene in 1956. This was the year before Haggard went to San Quentin Prison, so I can see why he would look back fondly on those days. And also, as always, he’s looking back to the days when he was a kid. But it’s really interesting in this song, the audience is whooping it up, even when he sings, “It was back when the country was strong.” Strong? What is this time when the country was strong? I’d really like to know. And I’d like to know what was so very wrong in 1982 when that song was a big hit.

The chorus of the song proclaims, “Are we rolling down hill / Like a snowball headed for Hell? / With no kind of chance / For the Flag or the Liberty Bell.” This is classic conservatism. The claim is that no one loves the country as much as they do but they hate it and where it is going. In other words, they don’t love America, they love “America”—some vague idea they have of what the “real America” is. In addition to this, people always say this regardless of when and where.

What’s most great about the song is the wonderful “pregnant and barefoot” moment, “Before microwave ovens / When a girl could still cook and still would.” You can just imagine Haggard at home writing the song, bitterly thinking of his country music star wife, Leona Williams, who wouldn’t cook him dinner even if she knew how to! But here’s the thing. Haggard is now on his fifth wife. He’s done serious time in prison and was even arrested numerous times while still a kid. He was also a major user of cannabis and cocaine after writing the lyrics, “I wish Coke was still Cola / And a joint was a bad place to be.” In other words, Merle Haggard is a fraud.

Of course, everyone who makes the dangerous public declaration for the good old days is. It’s demagoguery whether it is done by a politician or a country western star. But still, the hooting and hollering on this song really bothers me. If there is one clear emotional trend that runs through my life it is my ever increasing ability to avoid allowing propaganda to upset me. It is true that I’m often outraged about the state of the world. But it doesn’t come from liberal commentators stirring me up—at least not usually. It comes from just watching the world as it is.

In my conversations with conservatives, I spend most of my time simply calming them down. Most of the things they are outraged about aren’t even real. In the song, Haggard complains that cars don’t last ten years “like they should.” Except that they did last ten years, even during that ignominious time in Detroit. Most of the outrage machine (which as we see in this song goes far beyond political reporting) is a cynical exercise to keep people from focusing on what is really wrong. We live in a nation where not only is more and more going to fewer and fewer, but even our sources of news and entertainment are controlled by fewer and fewer people.

But we’re all supposed to focus on the fact that women ain’t cooking dinner like they ought to:

Vote You Asshole!

Jason JonesThis morning, I was very disappointed in The Daily Show. Jon Stewart went after 60 Minutes in the most tepid way only to throw in some false balance by equating the false story about Benghazi with the Time magazine cover that references the fact that Chris Christie is very fat. Not surprisingly, The Colbert Report did a far better job of it—both in terms of insightful media commentary and in term of humor. In general, I haven’t been too happy with The Daily Show since Stewart came back. The writers seem to be phoning it in most of the time.

The show redeemed itself in the B block, however. It consisted of a filmed segment by Jason Jones. He has long been my least favorite member of crew. And the show’s filmed segments have generally been weak. But the last year or so, Jones has gotten much better. And quite recently, the film segments have really improved. That was particularly true of Aasif Mandvi’s Suppressing the Vote segment.

Last night, Jason Jones presented another great segment, Not-So-Angry Voters. In it, he looks into the recent Colorado recall elections and tries to find out why state senator John Morse was thrown out of office for helping to enact legislation that was hugely popular. The answer, of course, is that the fucking liberal and moderate voters stayed home. The segment is Jones’ usual routine of spastic silliness and it is very funny. But it is also the most important thing that you need to remember about American politics: we have a fucked up country because too few people vote.

Vote you assholes!

Next General Election: 4 November 2014.

The Sculptor, Playwright, and Musicians

Auguste RodinOn this day in 1915, the great literary theorist Roland Barthes was born. These days he’s fallen out of favor, partly due to many of the excesses of later literary theorists. Also there is a belief, especially among conservative scholars that the only kind of valid truth is that which can be verified. That’s just silly. I’ve always found Barthes to be extremely insightful about the ways that language colors our perceptions of the world. We need this thinking more today than ever.

The great actor Wallace Shawn is 70 today. He is also a fine playwright. But the thing is that he writes primarily about sexual politics in the most explicit of ways. In fact, I don’t even know how some of his plays have been produced. It is absurdist work, mostly about people who are unable to relate to each other. Regardless, everyone knows him as an actor. Here he is in My Dinner With Andre, which he co-wrote with Andre Gregory. In this scene, Wallace lays out the urbane middle class philosophy of life. I mostly agree with it. Where I think the character shows some limitations is in his reductionist idea of the universe. Otherwise, I too think that not finding a cockroach in my coffee is about the best that can be hoped for in this life. Check out the clip, it’s really great and funny:

The great leader of Booker T & The MG’s, Booker T Jones is 69. Here he is with the band doing “Time Is Tight”:

Another great musician Neil Young is 68. I am a great fan of Buffalo Springfield. And since then, Young has done the best work of any of the great people in that band. Here he is doing “Harvest Moon”:

Other birthdays: activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815); playwright Ben Travers (1886); justice Harry Blackmun (1908); actor Grace Kelly (1929); murder mastermind Charles Manson (79); Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult (66); gymnast Nadia Comaneci (52); political activist Naomi Wolf (51); ice skater Tonya Harding (43); actor Ryan Gosling (33); and actor Anne Hathaway (31).

The Kiss - RodinThe day, however, belongs to the great sculptor Auguste Rodin who was born on this day in 1840. He is best known for The Thinker, but it really ought to be named “The Thinkers,” because he did it again and again. It was a big hit and he was on the leading edge of turning art into commerce. I first got into him when I visited the Musee Rodin in Paris. It was a revelation. Until that time, all I’d really known about him was The Thinker and it isn’t really one of his best pieces. What really struck me at the time was The Kiss, but all the work was incredible. In later years, I’ve become a much bigger fan of The Age of Bronze.

Happy birthday Auguste Rodin!