The Evolution of the Sock Puppet Sock PuppetIf there is a single image that sums up the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, it is the sock puppet. The company hired the advertising agency that had recently had great success with the Taco Bell chihuahua. So they came back with the little dog puppet with a microphone. The ad campaign was hugely successful in terms of generating attention for the company. But in the end, it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t a stupid idea, but the company ran through a ridiculous amount of money. They even had a float made of the puppet for the 1999 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — certainly a waste of money. A sock puppet can only do so much.

The puppet was performed by comedian Michael Ian Black. He’s a funny guy. The commercials work really well. But he’s a terrible puppeteer. The thing you notice with bad puppeteers is that they don’t even try. There is no effort made to match the sound. The mouth opens and closes at whatever speed while the puppeteer talks, and doesn’t when he isn’t talking. Still, in this case, it is clearly meant to be a hand puppet as they constantly show the arm and the wristwatch. And part of the charm is just how badly it is all done.

After was liquidated, the sock puppet was sold to Bar None — the car loan company. They changed him. He was no longer a simple sock puppet. This was probably because they got rid of Black. I must admit to preferring his voice. But whoever they got is an actual puppeteer. A great puppeteer can work with anything. But just check out the great moves done with the puppet’s lips. And, of course, his snout stays level and his jaw moves down like an actual dog (or any other animal that has a jaw).

I have a general theory that pretty much everything is better with puppets. They add the cartoon universe to real life. Like in the Bar None ad, it would be really difficult to have an actual human do that without making the audience hate him. But he’s a puppet, so somehow it’s okay.

Image from Wikipedia where who I’m supposed to acknowledg is less than clear.

Our Imperfect Government Killing Machine

Scott LemieuxIn late September, the Supreme Court refused to stay the execution of Richard Glossip, whose conviction on a charge of murder has been strongly called into question. However, his execution was stayed at the last minute by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin. Glossip’s fate remains unclear, but we can be certain of one thing: The American death penalty system is irretrievably broken…

The problem is that even though Glossip’s moral case is strong, his legal case is much less so. For better or worse, appellate courts place great weight on the “finality of judgment.” Even if a judge disagrees with Justice Antonin Scalia’s view that it does not violate due process for the state to execute a factually innocent person who was given a procedurally fair trial, Glossip represents a trickier case. He does not have, say, exonerating DNA evidence and an unshakeable alibi affirmatively demonstrating his innocence. The state does not have a very good case that he is guilty, but we do not know for a fact that he is innocent.

Appellate courts are therefore not well equipped to deal with this kind of gray area. This is where governors need to step in with their powers to commute the sentences and/or pardon people convicted of crimes. At the very least, [Oklahoma Governor Mary] Fallin should ensure that Glossip is not executed. But public officials who are inclined to support the death penalty, particularly in red states where they also face electoral pressure to be extra-tough on crime, cannot be trusted to do the right thing.

This is the reality of the death penalty. A division of labor is set up in which numerous officials, operating within their formal legal authority, act in concert to produce a flagrantly unjust outcome for which no one person is responsible. As the legal scholar Mark Graber puts it, “Richard Glossip is likely to be executed because capital punishment enhances prosecutorial power to secure unreliable and arbitrary death sentences.”

This is simply not a system that can be defended. It is becoming increasingly difficult to disagree with Justice Breyer’s conclusion in June that the death penalty is categorically unconstitutional. Even if the death penalty could pass constitutional muster in the abstract, in practice it cannot be applied without violating the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Glossip’s case is merely one example of far too many.

—Scott Lemieux
Why the American Death Penalty System Is Broken

Obama’s Pathetic TPP Legacy

Barack ObamaNow the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a done deal for all intents and purposes, it bears looking at again. The argument for it is that it is going to be great for the economy. That’s what President Obama keeps saying anyway. Of course, it’s bunk. Dean Baker made a good comparison recently, Donald Trump Says His Tax Cut Will Lead to 6% GDP Growth and President Obama Says TPP Will Boost Growth. That’s right: he’s saying that Trump’s widely mocked claim that his policies will lead to 6% growth are as ridiculous as Obama’s claims about the TPP.

It turns out that even people who are in favor of TPP don’t make much in terms of claims for it. The Peterson Institute claims that it will increase economic growth by 0.03% per year. This is literally at the level of noise. And in fact, that’s what others say. The United States Department of Agriculture said that the effect would be “too small to measure.” So we are getting a treaty that will weaken local laws, harm workers all over the world, and increase the prices of patented and copyrighted goods. But on the plus side… Well, there is no plus side.

So we are getting a treaty that will weaken local laws, harm workers all over the world, and increase the prices of patented and copyrighted goods. But on the plus side… Well, there is no plus side.

For a while, a lot of people like me thought that maybe the crazy Republicans would step up and make this an issue. After all, isn’t this treaty exactly what they are always claiming liberals are trying to do: create a one world government that will tell the good God fearing people of Texas or Arkansas or Mississippi what to do? But they aren’t concerned about this treaty because they know that the down side will only affect the poor people and the up side will help the rich people. Thus it is everything that Republicans want in a law or treaty: something to screw the poor and help the rich.

But you might wonder: if the TPP is going to produce basically no economic growth, why do the rich care? Well, it is the same reason that drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been such a big deal for such a long time. There is not enough oil there to make any difference to us on a national level, much less a world level. But it did mean billions of dollars for people who were already hugely wealthy. So it is a big deal to do. And it is the same thing here. This treaty is huge for the pharmaceutical industry. It is huge for Hollywood. But are we going to get better drugs or movies? Don’t be silly. This is about them being able to collect more rents on things they’ve already made.

So it is sad that Obama has pushed this through. In the end, I suspect people will remember him for Obamacare. But they will mention TPP in the same way that people mention NAFTA and Bill Clinton. “Oh yeah, well that was a mistake.” Not that Obama will ever suffer because of it. After he’s out of office, I’m sure that Pfizer and Roche will be eager to give him a million bucks to drop by and give a speech on something like volunteerism.

Plutocrats: 1
America: 0

Democratic Leadership vs Republican Brinkmanship

Republican FascismDaniel Drezner wrote an interesting article at The Washington Post last Friday, The Politics of Leadership and Anger. He noted that President Obama has moved from “weary resignation and shifted into frustrated outrage.” It’s understandable. So far this year, we have had more mass shootings — “incidents where 4 or more people are killed or injured by gunfire” — than we have had days (294 mass shootings in 297 days). The death toll has to get very high before the national news even notices one. And Obama is angry about it — not least because he’s tried to do things in the past and the Republican Congress has stopped him.

At the same time, Republicans claim to be very unhappy about the fake sting videos involving Planned Parenthood. Are they any more angry than Obama is about these mass shootings? They don’t seem to be. Actually, if you ask me, I think it is mostly fake — demagoguery for their base. But even if we take their anger at face value, it is no worse than the president’s. Yet as Drezner noted, Obama is not using the situation to block all the business of the government until Congress does what he wants: (1) threaten to veto all appropriation bills; (2) refuse to raise the debt ceiling; (3) demand the resignations of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

Now Drezner has no answers as to why this is. In fact, he seems to be under the delusion that John Boehner is in the same class of politicians as Obama: “a traditional politician who recognizes the limits of what can be accomplished without political support.” And that’s just nonsense. Was Boehner not one of Newt Gingrich’s hatchet men? Wasn’t he in favor of the government shutdowns in 1995 and 1995-96? Why, yes he was! And didn’t he vote to impeach President Clinton? Yes! In fact, only two of four charges passed against Clinton, but Boehner voted for all four.

I think it is critically important to remember this: even the “reasonable” Republicans are crazy. Remember in 2013, Boehner didn’t want to pick a fight with Obama over the continuing resolution. His stated reason was that the Republicans didn’t have as much leverage. He wanted to pick the fight over the debt ceiling — a far more dangerous act of brinkmanship. And so this isn’t — as Drezner claims — about the Tea Party. If anything separates the establishment from the Tea Party it is practical experience. They are all just as crazy; it is just that the establishment types wield the crazy more effectively.

So the problem is not that some in the Republican Party have poisoned it. It is that the Republican Party is itself rancid. And it has been since at least 1981 when Ronald Reagan said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The conservative movement — and America in a general sense — has managed to forget the first four words at the beginning of that sentence, and decided that the government is always bad. So why not shut it down? From the standpoint of the conservative, as long as the government continues to do the things they want (like send Social Security checks), then it’s fine.

At this point, I don’t think there is any way forward with the Republican Party. It will not reform from the inside — at least as long as it has any amount of political power. It must be destroyed. This is not a Cold War situation where we can move forward together while disagreeing. That was the way it was 40 or 50 years ago. We are now in a World War II situation. The Republicans are determined to destroy a century of American progress. They must be stopped. They must be destroyed.

Morning Music: Mona Ray

Dreams and All That StuffIn 1974, Leo Kottke put out one of his most successful albums, the all instrumental Dreams and All That Stuff. There is a lot of production on the album, which I tend to think is more about making the process more fun for him than us. Although it is generally effective, especially on When Shrimps Learn to Whistle (which you should check out).

Today, we listen to a very pretty song that still makes me slightly sad with its longing, “Mona Ray.” It’s easy to get caught up in his technique, but the music really is beautiful. It’s easiest to experience by not watching him as he plays. But it is wondrous regardless.

Anniversary Post: First Image of Far Side of Moon

First Picture of Other Side of MoonOn this day in 1959, the Soviet Luna 3 spacecraft transmitted the first ever pictures of the far side of the Moon. I thought we might take this opportunity to discuss why it is that the same side of the Moon is always facing us. Although I should tell you that this is not exactly true. I think we are able to see about 55% of the Moon’s surface, because it jiggles. But for all intents and purposes, we see the same moon each night. This is because it is tidally locked.

The Moon once rotated rapidly. But over time, the Earth’s gravitational field slowed it. The force from the Earth produces a bulge in the part of the moon that is directly facing the Earth — and also directly opposite (just like the Moon created tides on Earth). This has the effect of squishing down the sides, so that the moon looks like a football with the pointy end facing Earth. Of course, the deformation isn’t anywhere near that great. But that’s the basic idea.

While the Moon was spinning fast, the bulge was always slightly after the direct line. As a result, the gravitational field had a net torque on the Moon, slowing its rotation. The effect was very small. But it’s amazing what you can accomplish in a billion years. I used to tell my students to image the Moon (or any other tidally locked object like Mercury) as if it were a frying plan. The handle would always be facing just a little off center from the Earth, and would thus be constantly pulled slightly in the opposite direction of the Moon’s rotation.

Luna 3 was the first mission specifically meant to photograph the other side of the Moon. Luna 1, sent in January of that year, was meant to crash on the Moon. It missed. (Don’t laugh: we missed the Moon the first time we tried.) And it became the first human object to go into orbit around the Sun. Luna 2, sent in September, actually hit the Moon. Later, in February 1966, Luna 9 would be the first spacecraft to make a soft landing on the Moon (or any other place).

The radio signal on Luna 3 was so weak, that the spacecraft had to get almost all the way back to Earth in order to transmit its 18 images. The one above is the first transmitted back. I think we humans have become far too cavalier about this kind of stuff. What we now do in space is mind boggling. It’s always nice to go back five or six decades and see what we were doing and just how hard it was. Oh, and no one knows for sure what happened to Luna 3. But it probably burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere.