Monday, July 31, 2006

Divided We Stand

Peter Beinhart has an interesting piece in this week's New Republic in which he argues, contrary to popular belief, that the Republicans are more seriously divided than the Democrats. He has a point. On issues from immigration to deficit spending to stem cell research to Iran and North Korea, the Republicans are more divided than ever. On the other hand, he argues, the Democrat's "underlying unity is obscured by the war of words between the party's Clinton-dominated Washington establishment and its insurgent, Deaniac activitsts. But that fight is about rhetorical style, political strategy, and, above all, power." Again, he has a point. The left wing is no longer split between proponents of big government and third way moderates. The weak link in his argument, however, is just how divded the Democrats are over Iraq. Beinhart glosses over this by stating that a withdrawal, which he assumes is imminent, will reduce the importance of the issue. I disagree. With the situation in Iraq looking grimmer by the day and the Republicans digging in for a long battle, it seems unlikely that this issue will go away any time soon--certainly not before 2008.

Monday, July 24, 2006

More Zidane ahead.

In an article passed along by Deepa, we find that the Zinedine Zidane method of problem solving has apparently gained traction in the larger world of sports. This time, however, the perpetrator was a jockey, and the recipient of the head-butt was a horse. No doubt, Zidane is just as flattered by this instance of mimicry as I'm sure he is by the veritable cornucopia of Internet creativity that has sprung up as a result of his World Cup performance (Exhibit A). If Zizou finds he has developed a headache, either a lingering aftereffect of the incident itself, or a reaction to the hullabaloo that has followed, maybe he should try some HeadOn.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Broken record.

The disappearance of the record store will probably garner much the same reaction as the disappearance of the independent book store--screes against big business and aghast exclamations that our society is culturally bankrupt, followed immediately by a trip to amazon or iTunes when next it comes time to make a musical or literary purchase. Speaking for myself, it feels like I should be upset about the passing of these independent stores. But then when I think about it, I don't really know why. I like them very much. It's thoroughly enjoyable to browse about and feel fetishistic about my fetishes. A record store or a book store is a place full of possibility--I could know about, have read, have listened to, all of this stuff on the shelves. Gathering all those albums or books together in one place allows me to revere them. But the truth is that the Internet is a much truer place of reverence. The music blogs and 'zines that litter the e-scape offer a far greater devotion for me to engage in than merely being able to fondle the CD's on the racks, and there's an actual growth of my knowledge in the process. After all, while I sometimes imagine that the hipster behind the counter at my local record store is nodding approvingly at my purchase, I never actually ask him about music, nor am I sure that I'd like his recommendations if I did. So, if you asked me, I'd no doubt bemoan the passing of these brick and mortar temples of culture, but I'm not sure it's completely logical of me to do so.

Blogging for apples.

Today's Slate has Jack Shafer summing up a recent Pew report on the blogging world. The stats that Shafer focuses on: 12 million adult American bloggers, most of whom report that their readers include mostly family and friends--it seems that 100 unique hits daily counts as a large readership for Joe Average Blogger. Nine percent of the survey respondents (that's 1 million) said that some news outlet has taken note of their blog, though Shafer wonders if that stat might not be padded by at least a few respondents stretching the truth. Besides, the margin of error on the report is plus/minus seven points. This is all grist for the mill of one of Shafer's earlier claims, that maybe we have gotten a bit ahead of ourselves in thinking that blogs are transforming the media.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The yolks on us.

A bad play on words, I know, but that's what we can expect from CBS--in our refrigerators--come this fall. The NY Times reports that advertisements for CBS's fall lineup will be appearing on over 35 million eggs. Done by a company called EggFusion, the advertisements are laser etched onto the eggshells at a depth of 50 to 90 micrometers--deep enough to be clearly legible, but at only 5% of the shell's thickness, not deep enough to damage its structural integrity.

There is likely to be some disgust generated by this announcement. For those of us who worry about the degree to which we are bombarded by media, these advertisements will seem incredibly intrusive. It's nice to think that, at least inside our homes, if we choose to turn off the TV, the radio, et cetera, we can insulate ourselves. Not anymore. On a more basic level, there might also be something of an ick factor. Who wants someone monkeying around with their food? Especially eggs! Those little white ovals are the very picture of sanitary. Of course, it is the clean, white perfection of the things that makes the move so brilliant--what could possibly provide a better canvas for a message? Finally, it escapes me right now as to how to tackle the symbolic value of this move (the egg!), but I'm sure there will be at least one cultural theorist much smarter than I am who will pick up that particular thread.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

It's a beautiful day in the gayborhood.

On Thursday night's Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Ed Helms did a hilarious bit on a heterosexual man who moved his family to the Castro District in San Francisco (the "gayest neighborhood in the gayest city in the world") and was subsequently outraged by the character of the neighborhood. As Helms points out, it's like moving to a house next to an airport and then complaining about the noise. Perhaps this guy should blow off some steam by taking his family on a nice vacation.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Burritos as high art.

There is no taqueria in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so I was a bit surprised to find a burrito within the museum's hallowed halls. The Art of Betty Woodman, an exhibition at the Met, is a retrospective of the artist's ceramics, mostly vases with attached panels (flaps? wings?) painted with patterns that claim roots in varied traditons from Etruscan to Japanese. One of the most arresting pieces, maybe because of its name as much as anything else, was not a vase, but as the artist had labelled it, an Erotic Burrito. There was no picture to be found online, but the New York Observer's review of the exhibit has this to say by way of description: "Erotic Burrito (1971) consists of a saddle-like orifice set upon a flaccid pillow of stoneware, and it suggests that sexual relations pose a burden that a burrito should never have to bear." Being from New York, it is not clear that the Observer truly knows the extent of the passion that burritos have borne. As I currently reside in San Francisco, I can say that I am quite comfortable with the notion of burritos as erotic.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The death race.

In this month's issue of Harper's (hard copy only, so no link), Jake Silverstein recounts his experience following the Carrera Panamericana, a car race across Mexico. Originally run in 1950 as a way of showcasing Mexico's newly built cross-country highway, the speeding cars resulted in so many fatalities that it was nicknamed "The Death Race" and discontinued after five years. The Carrera was restarted in 1988, though in a nod to its old-timey roots, only vintage cars, like those they would have had in 1950, are allowed to compete. The cars are not the only things that have stayed the same--from Silverstein's account, it seems that the drivers are just as likely to wreck today as they were in 1950. The descriptions are often funny, but also veer towards disturbing, and the article never quite deals with the swath of destruction that the reace leaves in its path. Who are these (rich, and often old) people who smash up these cars, risking their lives and others'? Are they just bored--the adventure traveler taken to the extreme? Here's a representative sample from the article:
That night in Oaxaca the news at the drivers' meeting was that a Red Cross medic had been killed. On the day's third speed section, a Studebaker piloted by Axel and Nicolas de Ferran, who some said were brothers and some said were father and son, had blown its engine and dropped its oil; coming along behind them, Frank and Evelyn Currie, an elderly married couple from southern California in a white Mustang, had hit the the slick, spun wildly off the road, and slammed into an ambulance parked beside the shoulder. Racecar drivers do not make good witnesses, and reports varied. According to all, the Curries had not been injured, but it was possible that they were under house arrest in Chiapas somewhere, or that they were undergoing a battery of tests in a Tuxtla hospital, or that they had been remanded into the Inspector Jefe's custody and were headed toward Oaxaca. The de Ferrans had fled the country or were at the hotel checking their email.... As I talked to racers around the hall, the Red Cross medic came back to life, briefly flourished, and then lost both her legs.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The incredible disappearing gorilla.

Six people are on a basketball court, three in white outfits, three in black outfits. The folks in white are passing a ball amongst themselves; the folks in black are doing the same with their own ball. You are asked to watch this scene and count how many times the white team passes the ball. As you look on, counting away, a gorilla walks onto the court, beats on its chest, and walks off. Do you think you'd notice the gorilla? In a phenomena called inattentional blindness, only 46% of people do. The percentage is even lower if folks have been drinking. The NY Times reports that a study done by the Behavioral Alcohol Research Lab (BarLab!) at the University of Washington found that the number of people who notice the gorilla drops to 18% if participants have drunk enough to bring their blood alcohol level to .04.

Insert your own story of a few drinks leading to gross oversight here. Need not include a gorilla.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Boring billions.

The Nation takes Warren Buffet to task for his choice to donate his billions to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Says the article about Buffet: "He is a decent man, a clever man at making money, but about all that can be said of how he is disposing of his billions is that his choice was safe, insipid and probably inconsequential in the long run." The article argues that in its commitment to eradicate disease, the Gates Foundation is essentially overcrowding a niche that many governments have already stepped up to fill, and argues that a better use of the billions would be a complete redesign of the American health care system. You can write in to the Nation with your thoughts on how the money should be spent, or just post your comments below and let the massive Daily Irk readership see your thoughts.

Train up your spouse (or child or students).

As part of Irk's ongoing mission to repackage the NY Times, this article has been atop the most-emailed list for several days now, so it seemed only fitting to link it here. Its topic is how the techniques of animal training can similarly be used to teach domestic tricks to a spouse--things like tossing dirty clothes in the hamper, or ceasing to nag. Most of what the author credits to animal trainers is also pretty basic to psychologists, and incredibly useful not just in the home. Most well run classrooms, for instance, employ many of the recommendations. Among the techniques: 1) Use praise to recognize desired behavior, even behavior that is only sort of close, thereby shaping approximations into the desired behavior. 2) Negative attention is a form of reinforcement, so ignore undesirable behaviors. 3) Provide displacement activities that take an individual away from undesirable behaviors. They seem obvious, but run counter to our human impulse to, say, respond to that pointless fury with a fury of our own. Thanks to Deepa, Kellie, and Gregg for the discussion over drinks.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Gay marriage.

Disappointed in the Supreme Court of my home state, which ruled that it is not unconstitutional to deny equal marriage rights to gay couples. It was not a complete no-win, however, as the decision ceded authority to the state legislature for changing the law if it sees fit. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in election politics--of the two Democratic candidates for Governor, one has pledged to fight for equal marriage rights, while the other opposes the legalization of gay marriage.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

How Would Jesus Vote?

You should listen to Barak Obama's controversial speech on religion last week. I like the way he's refusing to cede the religious high-ground to the far right. I'm not a religious guy, and I certainly don't want a less secular government, but it annoys me that the far right have managed to appropriate the Christian message. I mean, if you actually read the bible (cf Luke 6, Luke 18, Acts 4, etc.) any reasonable person would assume Jesus's politics lie somewhere between Ralph Nader and Karl Marx. On a more practical note, America is in the midst of a massive evangelical religious revival and if the conservatives claim sole right to speak for this movement, the progressives are going to be sitting in the cheap seats for a long time to come. As Obama says:
More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical - if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.

Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address without reference to "the judgments of the Lord." Or King's I Have a Dream speech without references to "all of God's children." Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.

Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical, though. Our fear of getting "preachy" may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.
"Progressives cannot abondon the field of religious discourse," says Obama, and I tend to agree. There have been some interesting articles on this in Slate and other blogs, but I encourage you to listen to (or read the transcript of) the speech at the link above.

An excuse for becoming a nagging parent.

Adults often struggle to know what to tell kids about drinking. The drinking age of twenty-one seems arbitrary to some, while others feel hypocritical prohibiting something that they did at the same age. And, of course, many just feel like the kids are going to do it anyway, so what's the point. According to this NY Times article, however, keeping kids away from alcohol until they're 21 makes a whole lot of sense. To begin with, the article outlines that kids who engage in heavy drinking at an early age are far more likely to become alcohol dependent later in life. More striking, however, is that alcohol appears to affect the brain function of teens in ways that adult drinkers don't have to worry about--excessive drinking may stunt neurodevelopment in the hippocampus with possible long-term effects on memory.

Ken Lay Fakes Own Death To Avoid Prison

According to The New York Times, Ken Lay's spokeswoman announced today that Ken Lay passed away this morning at his vacation home in Aspen. I have four words for the Lays: show me the body. (Kind of a new twist on the right of habeas corpus.)

Monday, July 03, 2006

Blogging alone.

How many people in your life can you talk to about the matters that are closest to your heart? According to a NY Times article, a study out of Duke found that the answer to this question for the average American adult is two. This is a fairly flimsy personal support system--the loss of just one confidant means almost a wholesale destruction of one's inner circle. This is concerning because previous studies about strength of social networks have linked them to things as important as life expectancy, educational outcomes, and drug addiction recovery. As the article points out, this study harkens back to the work by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, where he decried Americans' shrinking store of social capital. It's hard to know how to take Putnam's findings or those of a study like this one--findings like this are often used to support statements about proper family structure (women in the workplace is one possible causal mechanism used to explain this data), or to point out that American values have gone down the tubes. So while it seems intuitive that broader social networks are better, and that we might want the average American to have more close confidants, it pays to be leery of the possible significances that are extrapolated from data like this. And, at least in the case of Putnam's work, other scholars have raised serious questions about the narrowness of his data collection and his definition of social network. Still, something to mull over. (As a side note, unlike in Putnam's original work, it's nice that this particular article allows for the possibility that social capital can develop through some of our modern electronic pursuits... maybe you're increasing your life expectancy by reading Daily Irk!)

The Internet is not a truck!

Now, I know that the Net Neutrality debate is a bit complicated, but I would think that those who are empowered to determine the future of the Internet would spend some time studying the issue (or at least having their aides do it). Instead what we get is utter incoherence from Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) explaining why he voted against the amendment:
"They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the internet. And again, the internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and its going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material."

The Wired Blog has an abbreviated transcript of his funny and sad speech. The full audio is available here (be warned, it's both long and inane).

Thank you Ted Stevens for your dedication and service to this country. If nothing else, we are all dumber because of you.

Sandra Day and Anthony K.

Slate has a piece about the way Justice Anthony Kennedy has taken over Sandra Day O'Connor's role as swing voter in the cases that come before the Supreme Court--and because the court is more or less at an ideological deadlock, with Kennedy in the middle, the piece goes as far as to call him a Supreme Court of One. Even more interesting is the piece's description of his tendency to decide cases on narrower grounds than his peers, and then to either write the majority opinion, or attach an individual concurring opinion to the majority opinion. It is the narrowest interpretation of a case that goes on to become law, so Kennedy is in effect moderating the more extreme opinions of the justices to either side of him when he does this. Finally, the piece engages in a little character analysis of Justice Kennedy, and notes that he is the most malleable--some might say open-minded--of the justices on the court, and is prone to be swayed by the opinions of others. He is also, it would appear, rather vain, very much enjoying the spotlight that his new role gives him. The article points out that Kennedy is suddenly oft-cited by his supreme peers in their opinions and briefings, and wonders if this isn't the other justices trying their darndest to appeal to his vanity and curry favor so they can nudge him to vote their way.