Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Simpsons decline (September 8, 2006)

I used to watch The Simpsons religiously. Meeting with friends before class in middle school and even high school unfailingly meant an exchange over last night's episode (re-runs weekdays at 6:30pm in addition to the new Sunday material). Around the turn of the century the quality dropped precipitously, and by 2001 I stopped watching entirely. Some potential reasons for the decline I've heard bantered about: the original writers have all departed, Matt Groening had burnt out/moved on to other projects of limited success like Futurama, the show and its cast had run its course, episodes increasingly focused on abrupt antics rather than characters, animated comedy peaked in the nineties. These all probably play a part.

I'd also offer that comedies have to be politically balanced to retain a large audience over a sustained period of time. While the show has always leaned left (Lisa, the precocious ethicist and the show's most thoughful character is also the show's marquee leftist (although Mayor Quimby, a Kennedy Democrat, is deplorable) while Republicans are portrayed as fitting three different molds, none of them very flattering: The erudite and intelligent but evil, money grubbing played by Mr. Burns, the religiously dogmatic and uncritical played by Ned Flanders, and the Limbaugh-listening male WASP buffoon Homer), it used to give conservative themes a legitimate hearing and take its share of potshots at the left. In Lisa the Tree Hugger, while her cause is shown to be noble, the radical environmentalist Jesse Grass is an egocentric maniac believing himself to have special powers to control nature. In Lisa the Vegetarian (my favorite episode), one take home message is that the imposition of one's beliefs on others cannot work in a free society, no matter how noble those beliefs might seem to their propagator. In Radio Bart, when the putative heroism of hapless victims is directly questioned by Lisa, Homer angrily responds that of course the boy who fell down the well is a hero because, damnit, he got trapped in a well! I could go on for hours (and would be happy to if the show strikes the interest of a reader via email or in comments) but many people would/already have tune(d) out.

Since 2000, I've seen a few episodes. One had to do with Homer and Marge trying to escape the children that have ruined their love life together, another that was so explicitly antithetical to the Bush administration's war on terrorism tactics that I could scarcely believe it was the same show, and a third where Fox News was portrayed as an RNC wing while no other media networks were touched. It's not that I'm bothered by it--on the contrary, I largely agree, but obviously that's not what I go to an animated comedy for. It is annoying to see blatant partisanship, not to mention unentertaining. Given the relative sophistication of the show's fanbase, a huge dropoff in social critiquing is easily going to be detected and resented. If the purpose is to allow us to examine our contemporary world through the lens of one that is just a finger far enough away to allow us to suspend our disbelief without losing our real world perspective, leaving half of reality unscathed makes for half the show. Some politically sensitive fans will abandon such a series, and people well versed in current events will, irrespective of their political leanings, be put off by such tactless partisanship.

Not surprisingly, the show that started a seminal first season with 13.4 million viewers seventeen years ago boasts only 9.4 million today.

Wisdom of age, ugliness of youth (June 2, 2006)

I wear my youth as a badge of honor. Actually, as a handy excuse. When I miss the obvious or rush to a conclusion without properly thinking it through, it's "Well, he's young and foolish. We all were." Instead of trying to compare myself to countless baby-boom mentors, I can compare myself to the do-rag-wearing, pant-sagging, '88 Prelude-driving, broke cad who's deafening himself to Eminem at 140 decibels when I pull in to get gas. Suddenly I don't feel like such a failure.

I'm a decade-and-a-half from reaching the ranks of the American middle-aged, but I'd be over-the-hill in a host of countries: Afghanistan, Angola, Bangladesh, Belize, Benin, Bhutan, Bolivia, Botswana, Burkina, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Cape Verde, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Djibouti, East Timor, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Eritirea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Gaza, Ghana, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea, Haiti, Honduras, Iraq, Kenya, Laos, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Maldives, Mali, Mauritania,
Micronesia, Mozambique, Namibia, Nauru, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Togo, Tonga, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Uzbekistan, the West Bank, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

And I'd like to live in exactly none of those places. Here's to the elders who hold society together--may we never take your sagacity or sobriety for granted!

Want the upperhand? Then you must not care (May 13, 2006)

Look at me/dreaming of you/all I could hope is to have you/have you walking with me/laughing so in love we two/almost drunkenly/I did imbibe of this/fantasy of you and me...
Thus the speakers blare, ravaging the eardrums of a catatonic, heartbroken loser. It's the weekend before finals but all I can manage, between bouts of moping, is catching up on my TAC reading. A zombie at work and psychologically withdrawn during workouts, a dashed appetite, with perpetual lethargic insomnolence.

What's going on inside? It doesn't appear we really know. Searching for "heartache physiology study" and "physiological biological cause explanation broken heart", etc yield little more than blogs pondering how nothing exists on the 'condition'. Consulting the voracious reader futurepundit produced one study out of John Hopkins pointing to cardiomyopathy:

Now, researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered that sudden emotional stress can also result in severe but reversible heart muscle weakness that mimics a
classic heart attack. Patients with this condition, called stress cardiomyopathy [an emotional blow as an idiopathic cause?] but known colloquially as “broken heart” syndrome, are often misdiagnosed with a massive heart attack when, indeed, they have suffered from a days-long surge in adrenalin (epinephrine) and other stress hormones that temporarily “stun” the heart...

the research team found that some people may respond to sudden, overwhelming motional stress by releasing large amounts of catecholamines (notably adrenalin and noradrenalin, also called epinephrine and norepinephrine) into the blood stream, along with their breakdown products and small proteins produced by an excited nervous system. These chemicals can be temporarily toxic to the heart, effectively stunning the muscle and producing symptoms similar to a typical heart attack, including chest pain, fluid in the lungs, shortness of breath and heart failure.

There's a sustained rush as the climactic moment of truth comes and goes. I've never experienced anything like this, though I'm told it's a rite of passage. For what? A Hinayana sect in Sri Lanka? Well, being in peak shape doesn't make you impervious:

“These cases were, initially, difficult to explain because most of the patients were previously healthy and had few risk factors for heart disease.”
So does stoicism win? What else to harden a sensitive self to outrageous fortune? Where's the evolutionary advantage in being a romantic? It's not good for your (physical) heart. If you've a predisposition to put all your eggs in one basket, what happens if watching that basket doesn't keep it from breaking? You get to produce the stuff of your sickness for the world to enjoy while your life spirals out of control in torturous depression? Except I'm producing nothing for the world to enjoy.

The philanderer and the jezebel hold the reigns of power and control procreation. The romantic votary is hopelessly outgunned. The predictibility and devotion of the latter acts as a stabilizer on a macro level, but for an individual on the losing side it's absolute misery. Who wants to carry such an unglorious cross? No wonder so many people do not want to deal with evolution as it relates to humans. It sucks.

Do I believe in love? Yeah, I believe that it's love that keeps beating me down.

Quantitative beats qualitative 41-38 (January 5, 2006)

Congratulations to the Texas Longhorns, who beat USC on Wednesday night in a high-powered offensive shootout that has surely propelled Vince Young--who's being compared to Michael Vick--into the NFL as a top first round pick.

The warm bodies that cover the sports world and the pagans who follow it had USC slated to win. The BCS and both Harris Interactive and USA Today polls had Southern California coming out on top. But the binary world extracted Longhorn dominance from the mass of statistics, paying no attention to the superstition that past performance alone somehow mandates future results. The blathering commentators were wrong. The computers were right.

So, man doesn't beat machine. Emotion and gut instinct are trumped by objective empiricism. There's a lesson here!

Okay, maybe I'm trying to extrapolate too much. Man does have to build the machine, at least for now. Nanobots may take over that function sometime in coming decades as well. But who's going to want to watch cyborgs play football? Well, maybe senescence-free AI robots that replace feeble humans...

Tofurkey? (November 25 2005)

The night before Thanksgiving, I caught the end of Hannity and Colmes. They brought on Bruce Friedrich of PETA and conservative talk show host Mike Gallagher to discuss “Tofurkey” (take a look), a meat-free tofu based turkey look-a-like (sort of). Friedrich was, of course, advocating it as a substitute for turkey while Gallagher challenged.

There’s no transcript available, but the segment consisted of Friedrich describing the brutal process of turkey farm processing, pointed out that as warm-blooded vertebrates they feel pain similar to that of dogs and cats—the slitting of their throats is not a pretty end—followed with flippant, condescending remarks by Gallagher and Hannity’s sit-in directed at Friedrich, while the insipid Colmes sat back and said little.

Now, Friedrich is a radical. He’s assaulted people in debates, streaked publicly in protest, and is a vociferous, unconditional pacifist. Apparently he takes the Peter Singer position that human favoritism among humans is “speciest” and that the ethical thing to do is treat each animal’s life with an equal amount of reverence.

Yet I cannot figure out why people like Gallagher so callously declare to show no concern—even seem to derive pleasure—from causing animals tremendous agony. People have to eat, and the “green” business craze has some ugly unintended consequences. But why mock the idea of people eating healthier and abstaining from something they see as abhorrent? If you want a window into a man’s character, look at how he treats animals.

For full disclosure, I should say that I’m a vegetarian and practitioner of qualified, moderate ahimsa (one of those loons who traps the wolf spider in a paper towel, runs upstairs, and releases the critter in the backyard).

An interesting aside: Ben Franklin, who famously wanted the wild turkey to be the nation’s bird instead of the Bald Eagle, wasn’t facile in his reasoning:

"I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and
when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him…

For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."

No kidding! On long bike rides out west of where I live, I have on a few occasions come upon a flock of turkeys milling about in the road. The females tend to amble away, but the males (who are bigger and more vivacious in appearance) usually stay put, looking at me. If I can ride around at a distance, I do after watching them for awhile—once, however, I actually had to yell and flail my arms to get them going. The wild turkeys of Ben’s time must have been more feral than those living just outside the suburbs today, but there’s no reason to discount their potential for pugnacity:

"In April, Will Millington was riding his dirt bike down a narrow trail in Norman, Okla., when he stopped before a flock of wild turkeys. The hens scattered, but two toms flared their feathers and stalked toward him. Then they suddenly leapt in the air, beat Mr. Millington with their wings and tried to
scratch him with the sharp spurs on the backs of their legs.

Mr. Millington frantically revved his bike's motor. Thirty yards down the trail he looked back. "They were running after me," says the 46-year-old property manager. "That was kind of spooky."

As Americans prepare to eat some 46 million domestic turkeys slaughtered for Thanksgiving, their wild cousins are fighting back. The explosion of the wild turkey population to nearly seven million from just 30,000 in the 1930s has put a growing number of humans in the face of angry gobblers.”

You don’t have to train your eyes on an open field for long in the summer before seeing a Red-tailed hawk fleeing pesky starlings a tenth her size. But what little bird has the guts to tackle a turkey?

I stumbled upon this gem on the website for the nationally syndicated Laura Ingraham radio show. I'm not a huge fan of miss Ingraham--the bulk of her show involves her utilization of sophomoric jokes, mockery, and name-calling while her two producers snicker a la Beavis and Butthead. The trio is rather clever and when I occasionally listen I do enjoy some chuckles, but don't expect to learn much from them.

However, this particular link is to a San Francisco Chronicle article where convicted ecoterrorist Jeff Luers is interviewed by a man named Gregory Dicum. It is, not suprisingly, a softball interview that is drenched in admiration for Luers, who was sentenced to 22 years for setting fire to three SUVs in Oregon five years ago. If you have the time, I suggest skimming through it in full to see the skewed morality of the ecoterrorism crowd and to observe how sympathetic some media figures are to this sort of violence. Luers' refusal to enter into a plea agreement landed him the harshest sentence in US history for "environmentally motivated sabotage."

I've pulled out a few of the most precious excerpts:

Supporters have organized chapters in 35 cities and 11 countries, and they say
Luers is a political prisoner rotting in prison because of the way he expresses his political beliefs.

Rush Limbaugh famously makes the claim that environmentalism is the new bastion of communism. That's probably not fair to many non-Bolsheviks who are concerned about humanity's impact on the natural environment, but it's certainly true in some cases. These supporters, for example, clearly have no regard for the concept of personal property. Destroying $80,000 of a person's assets is a legitimate expression of political beliefs? I wonder how much carbon dioxide was spewed into the atmosphere from the burning of the vehichle's synthetics, paint, and tires? Probably more than they would have ever emitted being driven for 150,000 miles each.

Q: Did you consider yourself engaged in terrorism when you set fire to those SUVs?
A: No. Really, when you look at the use of the word today, terrorism is nothing more than a way to define armed struggles that you disagree with.
How heroic. Well, I suppose that means we can go ahead and carpet bomb the Sunni Triangle. The bastards there are causing us a lot of trouble, and the US government is in an armed struggle with the Islamo-fascists it doesn't agree with. Have at it boys.

Q: Were you conscious of it being a step in a new direction for you?
A: I was trying to move into the realm of more radical actions. If you compare arson
actions that have happened in the U.S., the majority of them were quite major. That's the goal that I was working toward -- to be more of an underground guerrilla activist. The SUVs were kind of a baby step.
Only 22 years? How much more damage should we expect when this nut is released? Three SUVs appear to be small potatoes compared to what Luers has on tap.

Q: In before-prison pictures, you look like the stereotypical anarchist punk. Do you consider yourself an anarchist now?
A: Yeah, but probably not in the way that most people define anarchist. I believe in autonomous self-rule. My definition of anarchy includes the ability of other people to choose to live nonanarchist lifestyles. I think that people need to choose the lifestyle that's best for them, as long as it doesn't impinge on the freedom of others.
If only he practiced what he preached, he'd be a respectable dissenter, a legitimate non-conformist. But destroying property hurts people economically. Heaping financial burdens on business people does not allow them to live freely. It increases insurance costs, and that results in less cash for the dealership to have available for employment. People are forced out of jobs. That's not freedom either. Uncontrolled conflagrations are exceedingly dangerous. Check out the wildfires raging in the Southwest as we speak. Yet this arson jeopardized the physical well-being of countless people in the Eugene area. There's also the damage he did to the environment by releasing so many toxic fumes into the atmosphere.

Well, education and ethical debate is a powerful force for change, but it can only sway someone whose problem is that they don't know. It can't reach someone who doesn't care... There is no equality between the average person and a corporate entity. Good, solid communication cannot occur when people are not equal, and that's where we find ourselves. We need to take corporations that aren't willing to listen and force them to listen, or hurt their pocketbooks. Losing money is the only thing that ever seems to affect a billion-dollar enterprise.
There's a slew of anti-corporation bromides in the piece. Many corporations are comprised of thousands of employees, hundreds of thousands of shareholders, and millions of customers. Does he expect an equality between one person and several million? Socialism is apparent once again. And of course, there is the richness of a far-lefty rabidly imposing his morality on everyone else, a tactic that the left putatively abhors.

If you don't like the dealings of a corporation, vote with your dollar. Spread your message in a civilized manner. There's a beauty in the capitalistic system that forces companies unable to satisfy the public out of existence. Coca Cola and Yum! Corporation (Pepsi spinoff that owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut) have had to respond to these sorts of concerns recently.

One parting question: Can you imagine if Luers had been arrested for torching an abortion clinic or a welfare office? Would the media salivate all over him and trumpet his right to "political expression" with such vigor? Would they suggest he was merely a political prisoner with too harsh a sentence?

Might I shake your desire for palatable delights with a prediction? The use of animals as a source of sustenance is going to become anathema in developed nations by the end of the century. Only 2.5% of Americans are vegetarians, but between the ages of 18-29 the rate is 6%. Now is your chance to throw in with the trendsetters! At least hear Sebastian's story.


How did this little critter get to his open-air resting place? He was shipped in from Eastern seaboard or possibly from a farm in Norway this morning inside a large baking dish to the refrigerator, blindfolded, bound, and contained in a brown paper bag for the day. When the evening rolled around, two scenarios may have played out. The first via steaming:

Place about 2 inches of salted water in a large kettle or pot and bring the water to a boil. Place the lobsters into the water, one at a time, and allow the water to boil once more. Begin your cooking time when the water
returns to a boil. Steam the lobsters for approximately 15 minutes for a 1 to 1¼-pound lobster or about 18 minutes for a 1½-pound or larger lobster.

It's not so bad--the creature expires immediately after contact with the boiling water. Their feeble bodies can not tolerate water beyond 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Tossing them into the bubbling pool is like throwing a human into an active volcano. Of course, they change colors and twitch after hitting the water, but ignore that. For all intensive purposes they are already dead.

The second option allows these crustaceans to enjoy existence for a little longer:

Fill a large pot one-half to two-thirds full, allowing about 2½ quarts of water for each lobster to be cooked (water should cover the lobsters). Add 2 tablespoons of salt for each quart of water. Bring the water to a full boil over high heat. Place the live lobster head down until completely submerged. When the water returns to a boil, cook the lobsters for ten minutes for the first pound, and three minutes for each additional pound.

Lobsters and their amphibious friends, the frogs, apparently have quite a bit in common. Submerge them in a comfortable aquatic setting, make it increasingly cozy, and they won't even realize their proteins are breaking down and they are being boiled alive. Nothing in common with we humans, however--we would realize the peril posed by rising water temperatures and find dry land. Well, perhaps some mentally handicapped citizens, a la Terri Schiavo, wouldn't realize or be able to adequately react to the danger, but who wants to eat another human? That is barbaric!

Not sure if they have yet passed on? Just give the head a slight tug:

If the antennae remove easily, the lobsters are done.

After sufficiently steamed or boiled, it is time to dismember the carcass and begin feasting. A tip to keep in mind that I forgot to mention earlier concerning the storage of the succulent little guy:

Do not seal a live lobster in a plastic food container or in a plastic food storage bag because they need to breathe.
Got it? This animal is in our care and we must assure its survival!

Yes, I realize that lobsters are carnivores. If we were six inches tall and laying at the bottom of the sea, Sebastian would not hesitate to gobble us up. And natural selection infused us with the power of Nero. Why turn our back on it now (cholesterol aside)? Maybe there is no reason. Still, pondering whether it is necessary to annihilate an animal for food in a country where there is no economic necessity to do so is worth a little contemplation. The call is yours to make, emperor--give the thumbs up or thumbs down.

Stand Up, the Dave Matthews Band sixth major release in their decade-and-a-half of existence debuted at number one on Billboard's Top 200 among a lackluster cohort of new-releases (the most prominent being Weezer--yes, apparently the garage band that reminds one of regrettable junior-high days is extant still). But it's opening week performance was hardly stellar by comparison to the band's other releases, as the groupie site nancies.org explains:

It sold 465,000 copies in its first week, short of Busted Stuff's 622,000-strong debut in 2002, and way short of Everyday's sales of 733,000 in the week of its release in 2001.

It even underperformed Some Devil, Dave's 2002 solo release by a few thousand copies. What is the culprit? It only slightly outperformed Before These Crowded Streets debut, the album that really launched dmb into the front-and-center mainstream. Two prominent explanations come to mind. First, the record industry is in free-fall. Industry sales have dropped about 10% each year for the last three, a figure that understates actual unit declines, as CD prices have risen during the precipitous decline in inventory movement to cover the losses, even as complementary items have become dirt-cheap (CD-Rs, CD/DVD players, etc). File-sharing, digital downloads, a myriad of "artists" available via the internet from every corner of the globe, and a shift in cultural values, among other things, have certainly contributed to the industry's imbrolgio. Maybe MTV and the three-minute ditty was the beginning of the end. Dmb is not immune to that kind of systematic shift, but with its putative super-loyal fanbase it's hard to have imagined it would hit the band this hard. It doesn't appear to be an exhaustive explanation.

Unsystematic changes comprise the second set of factors; these are more open to debate. Certainly the band's recent music has become less idiosyncratic and the songs have decreased in both length and complexity. The albums seem to be made for radio--the best Crash and Under the Table and Dreaming songs are not the tracks that got the radio play (Too Much, So Much to Say, and Crash vs. Two Step, #41, and Lie in Our Graves, etc), but with Before These Crowded Streets that changed. Of course these are generalizations, but for the most part long-time fans would tend to agree. The "Dancing Nancies" and the "#41"s are a thing of the past. This shift has decreased the band's salience to unique sound-seekers looking for something less conforming.

Fans who followed the band early on have left their adolescent and college years behind and consequently listen to less music. No doubt Dave's political opining turned some people off as well. While the record industry, like the rest of the entertainment scene, is a bastion of liberal-progressive thought, people from all over the political spectrum like music. It wasn't scientific, but a nancies.org poll showed a sizable minority of visitors supported George W. Bush in the 2004 Presidential election (unfortunately nancies.org restricts archival access to the webmasters, so a link is not possible). The South African came out against the operation in Iraq before it had even begun, leaving an impression of political subterfuge. Dave's flummoxing rhetoric in the notoriously anti-military magazine Rolling Stone didn't exactly contain inspirational prowess, but no doubt it did turn some people off:

We've got to get somebody new in the White House. Being from South Africa, I know how much the rest of the world fears the United States right now. It's like if the world is a room, and everybody is in there, and suddenly somebody walks in who is seething and has headphones on, and the music is playing really loud, and he's armed. That's the way the world sees us. Everyone is on tiptoes, afraid of what this country might do. It's bound to scare everybody.

Aside from "the world" apparently not including Japan, Taiwan, Israel, Mexico, Colombia, India, Australia, Great Britain, and Poland, his indictment of America for taking preemptive action (philosophically supported by most Americans) against two of the world's most ruthless regimes on moral grounds was too much. While the toppling of the Taliban and subsequent rebuilding have gone relatively well, Iraq is another story. Economically it has been just short of disastrous, the western intelligence agencies have been irreparably embarrassed, and American boys have paid the ultimate price. But for those who have seen Buried in the Sand: The Deception of America the parallels between the United States prior to the Iraq invasion and the UN's handling of the Rwanda situation (see Hotel Rwanda) are unavoidable: Iraqi civilian's tongues being torn out with pliers, bound men thrown off five-story buildings by the Ba'athist guard, children executed in front of their mothers, etc). Regardless of the odious motives of the two powers (see the seismic Oil-for-Food scandal that demonstrates a big-business hunger for profit that dwarfs Halliburton's price-gouging), it's hard to say that continued acquiescence would have been anything but turpitude of the worst order. Most of Dave's fans probably agreed with his assessment, but many did not. It was too vague an attack and did not offer solutions. Boyd Tinsley's criticism was more tempered and rational, and likely did no damage to the band's reputation.

The band's zenith came somewhere between Before These Crowded Streets and Everyday. Debuting at number one does not demonstrate a nadir, but it must be admitted that the apex has come and gone on account of various forces. Still, in the foreseeable future most shows should continue to sell out, and the band's unique sound has become a permanent part of American music's history.


No comments: