Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Roundup

The Lexicographer's Dilemma, by Jack Lynch

Lynch uses the Great Man trope -- John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, and even George Carlin, all figure prominently -- to sketch a narrative of the codification of "proper English" and show where the language has landed today. Yet it's ultimately a Hayekian story of emergent order, despite his insistence on the importance of a handful of individuals on the shaping of the language. I found the chapters on the battle between prescriptive versus descriptive dictionaries the most interesting, though a later chapter on "bad words" (from curses to slurs) was better than I expected. The book loses steam a bit when Lynch tries to explain where the language may be going. Still, a must for language mavens, but good even for a general audience.

The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

A literary love story told by means of a clichéd sci-fi device. Niffenegger's airtight plotting of the twisty temporal shifts is brilliant. It's a warm, and heartbreaking, celebration of true love and its momentary and permanent loss. Unfortunately, the novel sags a bit in the middle, and only the time-traveling Henry is fully fleshed out. What keeps you going is Niffenegger's craft as a storyteller. And the ending is just brutal, and yet still immensely satisfying.

Eating the Dinosaur
, by Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman is my favorite cultural critic, and the writer I hope to be when I grow up. This is not his best essay collection -- that would be either Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs or IV -- but here Klosterman makes things I hate, like football, seem interesting, even IMPORTANT. The best essays, one that juxtaposes David Koresh and Nirvana (not as ridiculous as it sounds), and another on the genius of ABBA (which I wholeheartedly agree with), are as good cultural criticism gets. Reading Klosterman just makes me intensely yearn for him to write a regular column for a magazine, or at least start a blog (which, sadly, he vehemently opposes).

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

I've just started this one. Its monochromatic bleakness is suffocating. Thus far, its aesthetic merit, and my interest, begins and ends with McCarthy's prose, so spare and stylized, with his run-to-the-dictionary obscurities and his disdain for any punctuation apart from the period. It seems like a book I'll admire more than enjoy.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Robocritter Cometh

Am I the only one who understands that this would inevitably lead to this?

(HT Matt Briner)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What's That I Hear?

It's the health-care death rattle:
With no clear path forward on major health care legislation, Democratic leaders in Congress effectively slammed the brakes on President Obama’s top domestic priority on Tuesday, saying they no longer felt pressure to move quickly on a health bill after eight months of setting deadlines and missing them.

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, deflected questions about health care.

“We’re not on health care now,” Mr. Reid said. “We’ve talked a lot about it in the past.”

He added, “There is no rush,” and noted that Congress still had most of this year to work on the health bills passed in 2009 by the Senate and the House.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Business Cycle Hip Hop

This is brilliant. Kudos to GMU economist Russ Roberts and creative director John Papola.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jay Leno: Then and Now

September 03, 2009:
If The Jay Leno Show succeeds — where succeeding means not getting more viewers than the competition but simply increasing NBC's profit margin — it suggests a TV future in which ambitious dramas become the stuff of boutique cable, while the broadcasters become a megaphone for live events and cheap nonfiction. "If the Leno Show works," says former NBC president Fred Silverman, "it will be the most significant thing to happen in broadcast television in the last decade."

January 22, 2010:
The Jay Leno Show couldn't pull a prime-time-size audience. And when Leno went down, he took local newscasts with him (major markets like Philadelphia plummeted as much as 48 percent).

Surfer Blood *Astro Coast* Review

I suspect the boys of Surfer Blood have never met a guitar riff they didn't like. Their debut album, Astro Coast, is chockablock with big riffs, so many that some chord progressions inevitably veer into the territory of outright homage (or plagiarism, depending on your views on the matter) before abruptly shifting course. (I heard similarities to Bill Withers, Tears for Fears, and the Sure-Flo song from A Mighty Wind, of all things.)

Astro Coast hangs together, and largely succeeds, because of its excess and bigness. The album's breakout single, "Swim," is the perfect example. Lead singer John Paul Pitts' open-throated vocal is reverberated almost to the point of absurdity, while the bombastic pound of the drums threaten to blow out your speakers, and melodies don't get any bigger than its anthemic chorus. Like the surf rock that inspires the album's sound, the song should be ridiculous, but somehow all the elements come together to transcend their seeming flaws.

The rest of Astro Coast's songs don't reach the giddy heights of "Swim," but they come pretty close. The muscular "Floating Vibes" kicks off the album with aplomb, complete with hand claps and a classic surf-rock bass line. "Take It Easy" features a slinky chorus, and its syncopated beat, which is clearly indebted to Vampire Weekend, begs to be danced to. The excellent instrumental, "Neighbor Riffs," which bears more than a passing similarity to the Allman Brothers' "Jessica," is as good as that song form gets.

A number of critics have described Astro Coast as an update of Weezer's classic, Pinkerton. Lyrically, this is undoubtedly true, and it's especially evident in the sexual frustration of "Twin Peaks." But melodically I see more of a connection to the guitar-driven dance pop of Stone Roses' self-titled debut, though Surfer Blood's music is punchier, and sprightly in ways the Stone Roses never were. Tracks like "Harmonix" and "Slow Jabroni," if not directly influenced by the Roses, are closer to the "Madchester" sound than Weezer's proto-emo.

For all of its strengths, and there are many, Astro Coast almost paints Surfer Blood into a corner. The ephemeral nature of its primary influences can't sustain a redo for the band's second album. What remains to be seen is whether Surfer Blood can endure as surely as they endear here on their debut.

My review is also now up on Sputnik Music.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

New Magnetic Fields Streaming Now

Stephen Merritt has ditched the distortion and returned to 69 Love Songs era gorgeousness. Some of it might be a little too precious, but it sure sounds great.

Via Drowned in Sound

Friday, January 22, 2010

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Spoon *Transference* Review

Spoon plays a dirty trick with "Transference," a seemingly underwhelming album that eventually coalesces after a few plays.

The first thing that strikes you is its almost lo-fi, somewhat muddy production. It largely defines the sound the album, and makes it the most sonically cohesive and singular Spoon album yet. Musical voices blend and blur; Britt Daniel's vocal is at one moment buried in the mix, then strikingly brought forward. It's a jarring experience, especially coming off of the bold and bright Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.

Transference is not a "difficult" album by any means (this is Spoon, after all), but its production tempers the immediacy of the songs, which don't reveal their charms upfront. Songs like "Got Nuffin," "Trouble Comes Running," and "The Mystery Zone," are as good as Spoon gets. Yet if they were recorded for an earlier Spoon album, they would have popped and grabbed the listener from the get go. Here they slowly unwind and burrow their way into your ears.

What at first seems like a retreat from the triumph of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, turns out to be a shrewd redefining of Spoon's trademark sound. The songs are as economical as ever, yet there is a looseness (and a confidence) that Spoon hasn't shown before. Still, the album is flawed. A few songs meander a bit too long ("I Saw the Light"), and the album's gorgeous standout ballad, "Goodnight Laura," ends a minute too soon. But taken as a whole, Transference rewards replay more than any of Spoon's previous works. It's a knockout record that compels the listener to start it up again as soon as the last track ends. It doesn't reach the giddy heights of Kill the Moonlight or Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, but it comes pretty damn close.

The Power of One

Liberals like Ezra Klein have been lamenting the fact that the filibuster has constrained the agenda of the Democratic majority, especially with regard to the now imperiled health-care bill. And that was while Scott Brown's stunning upset was a far-fetched fantasy. Now the Democrats face the treacherous reality that the election of a single senator might compromise their cherished agenda. It's just not fair!

Horseshit. If we're really going to be democratic, then let's acknowledge that a majority Americans are against the health-care bill. Of course, the health-care junta would be wrong regardless of its popularity. But the Democrats are merely being true to their name. For them, only numbers matter. If 51% of the population (or the legislature, by proxy) feels one way, then so be it. That's democratic. Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for us, we're not a democracy. We still seek to protect the minority (or in this case, the majority) against the tyranny of the majority (or in this case, the minority).

Tonight, the election of one dumbass from Massachusetts now threatens the crown jewel of the Democrats' domestic agenda. And I couldn't be happier.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The World Turned Upside Down

Please wake me, because I must be dreaming. A Republican has taken Ted Kennedy's seat. Let the wild Democratic disarray start!

Song Break

The video for "Brother Sport," from Animal Collective's incredible Merriweather Post Pavilion, is, as Tyler Cowen would say, self-recommending.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Why I Hope Scott Brown Wins

The Democrats' chief criticism of their political opponents, the fractured, rudderless Republicans, is that they're obstructionists, that they have no central ideological message, no answers to the problems facing America apart from being against President Obama. This is undoubtedly true. The Republican Party has reverted to its pre-Reagan position, merely a lite version of its Democratic counterpart, whose sole value is to slow the Democratic march toward socialism, while being inept at halting it and reversing course. Of course, while the Republicans were in power, they were ones responsible for moving the country toward socialism, with the Democrats basically going along for the ride. So it goes.

The Republicans are only good for, and at, being an obstructionist minority, the very thing they're criticized for. Right now, the Democrats have control of both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, and have a near-majority in the judicial branch (depending on the whims of the teetering Anthony Kennedy). That's why it's so important that Scott Brown, a candidate whose worth lies with his filibuster vote in the Senate, wins tomorrow's special election in Massachusetts. A Brown win would demoralize the Democrats, and spook their centrist Blue Dog contingent. Maybe the health-care bill still passes, but as has been already noted by many, the loss of Ted Kennedy's seat to a Republican will bind the Obama Administration's domestic policy.

And for that reason alone, I hope Scott Brown wins tomorrow.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

*Drag Me to Hell*

I typically don't like horror movies, especially the loathsome torture porn that has dominated the genre of late. But Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell is great, more a comedy wearing horror-movie clothes than Saw XIII. The premise is straight out of the Brothers Grimm: bank loan officer Christine Brown (the gorgeous and wonderful Allison Lohman), angling for a promotion and looking to appear stalwart, refuses a gypsy woman's mortgage extension despite the crone's pleading. Bad move.

The gypsy woman curses her, and now Christine has three days to reverse the spell, or suffer an eternity in hell. The bulk of the movie follows Christine's increasing desperation to avert her fate. Raimi fills the movie with cheap horror movie thrills, but like the Scream series, the clichés work to both scare and elicit laughter. The film logically builds to its twist ending, which is nasty, but also perversely satisfying. Recommended.

Friday, January 15, 2010

What's the Matter with Massachusetts?

What the hell is going on in Massachusetts? Megan McCardle called this a couple of weeks ago:
Last night's Rasmussen poll in Massachussetts found that Republican Scott Brown was only 9% behind the Democratic candidate in the race to replace Ted Kennedy, which will be done by special election later this month. For Massachussetts, replacing a Kennedy, that's a pretty remarkable number--and the one thing Rasmussen does relatively well at is predicting electoral results. The people who will definitely vote only went for Democrats by 2%. This with a candidate who has so far gotten little support from the national party.

Instpundit is inspiring readers to give to his online fundraising, and if I were the GOP, I'd be thinking about pouring some money into this race. Turning Kennedy's seat would pretty much kill health care reform, I imagine, and even making it a close race might send a message to nervous senators about how Massachussetts voters view its health care reform.

It's a very long shot--Massachussetts is, well, Massachussetts. But given the stakes, it's a gamble I'd certainly take if I were someone senior at the RNC.
Maybe not so much of a long shot. From the NYT:
In a last-ditch effort to avert a debacle for the Democrats, the White House announced that President Obama would campaign here on Sunday for Martha Coakley, the Democratic Senate candidate, amid growing signs that the race for Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat has become too close to call.

With a new Suffolk University/7 News poll showing the race in a virtual tie, the announcement is fraught with political peril for Mr. Obama — particularly if Ms. Coakley loses the seat to the Republican, State Senator Scott Brown. Nonetheless, the president’s advisers concluded that Mr. Obama’s fortunes were already tied to the outcome of the race, so there was no reason to keep him away from Massachusetts.

The special election for the seat is on Tuesday. Several polls in recent days indicated that Ms. Coakley was losing a lead, and the Suffolk poll showed Mr. Brown with 50 percent of the vote and Ms. Coakley with 46 percent, a result within the poll’s four percentage point margin of sampling error.
Oh boy. If Brown wins, it could be one of the greatest political upsets in recent history. Not only because a notoriously liberal state would elect a Republican (who's outspokenly against the health-care bill) to the Senate, but that Brown's election could mean certain peril for Obama's domestic policy. And it's Ted Kennedy's seat, for christ's sake!

The Dems are pulling out the big guns, not only Obama, but Bill Clinton, John Kerry (haha), and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Their desperation, in Massachusetts!, does not bode well for the Dems in November.

Addendum: Megan McCardle ponders what a Brown win would mean for the health-care bill:
I'm still not convinced that the chances of Scott Brown beating Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts special election are as high as 50%. I would like this to be true, but the universe is not here to please me--though Martha Coakley's nearly unprecedented gift for putting her foot in her mouth certainly seems to be.

Nonetheless, I think it's worth speculating: what if? What happens to health care?

The progressive pundits seem to be pretty united in their belief that this is no big deal, nothing to see here, move along--either they'll rush through a compromise, or the House will pass the Senate bill unchanged. The libertarians I know, on the other hand, are equally convinced that this means the death of the bill. At this point, there are clearly a fair number of Democrats who would really rather not pass this, but are afraid to defy their party. If all they have to do is stall long enough to let Brown take his seat, well, that's not hard to do, especially since Stupak seems so far pretty adamant about accepting the Senate compromise.

Moreover, Brown's election probably makes a bunch of Blue Dogs even more nervous than they already are--when they're already about as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. How much discipline can the leadership exert on those quailing members, given how shaky many of their campaigns are looking? If Scott Brown can get elected in Massachusetts with a pretty clear mandate to kill the health care bill--even in an off-year special election . . . well, how frightened are you really that Harry Reid's going to be around next year to take his vengeance?

The leadership could try to stall Brown's certification. But I have no evidence that they are any less appalled by the idea than I am--and even if they were, I'm pretty sure they've already realized that it would be political suicide. There is simply a limit to how brazenly legislators can flout the will of the folks who elect them.

So I guess I'm in the camp that thinks a Scott Brown victory means that the health care bill goes down. On the other hand, given the near-perfect correlation of one's opinion on the matter with one's opinion on the health care bill, I think it's pretty clear that we're all seeing what we want to see.
Who would have guessed that a Massachusetts special election would be so interesting?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

New Spoon Record Streaming Now

NPR is streaming Spoon's new album, Transference. I've only listened to it once (on my laptop speakers, no less), so my opinion is merely a snap judgment. It sounds like a retreat from the big production and instant likability of their last album. It's loose (uncharacteristic for the band), and even more stripped down than their previous records. Overall, I'm underwhelmed. I hope it's a grower.

Transference drops on Tuesday.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Green Zealotry

Here's an excellent, and succinct, description of the secular religion of environmentalism:
Instead of religious sins plaguing our conscience, we now have the transgressions of leaving the water running, leaving the lights on, failing to recycle, and using plastic grocery bags instead of paper. In addition, the righteous pleasures of being more orthodox than your neighbor (in this case being more green) can still be had—the new heresies include failure to compost, or refusal to go organic. Vitriol that used to be reserved for Satan can now be discharged against evil corporate chief executives and drivers of gas-guzzling vehicles. Apocalyptic fear-mongering previously took the shape of repent or burn in hell, but now it is recycle or burn in the ozone hole. In fact, it is interesting the way environmentalism takes on the apocalyptic aspects of the traditional religious narrative. The idea that the end is nigh is quite central to traditional Christianity—it is a jolting wake-up call to get on the righteous path. And we find many environmentalists in a similarly earnest panic about climate change and global warming. There are also high priests of the new religion, with Al Gore ("the Goracle") playing an especially prophetic role.

We even find parallels in environmentalism of the most extreme, self-flagellating forms of religious guilt. Nietzsche claims that religion has fostered guilt to such neurotic levels that some people feel culpable and apologetic about their very existence. Compare this with extreme conservationists who want to sacrifice themselves for trees and whales. And teachers, like myself, will attest to significant numbers of their students who feel that their cats or whatever are equal to human beings. And not only are members of the next generation egalitarian about all life, but they often feel positively awful about the way that their species has corrupted and defiled the whole beautiful symphony of nature. The planet, they feel, would be better off without us. We are not worthy. In this extreme form, one does not seek to reduce one's carbon footprint so much as eliminate one's very being.

That was Stephen T. Asma, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

*Avatar* Review

The best thing I can say for James Cameron's Avatar is that its technology and setting, the jungle moon Pandora, would probably make a pretty nifty EPCOT ride. But Avatar's three-dimensional assault, which lasts the length of almost three hours, not only tires the eyes, but numbs the brain. I walked out woozy, and not because I was overwhelmed by its splendor.

Let me first address Avatar's visual presentation, about which even the film's fiercest detractors begrudgingly admit is magnificent. I think the film's palette is monotonous, boring even. There are moments of cleverness, mostly with the imaginative florae of Pandora (the faunae were roundly hideous). The motion capture technology of the alien race manages to avoid the uncanny valley, but it still looks cartoonish. I admit I had an initial gee whiz reaction to the 3D, but it faded after 20 minutes (about the length of an EPCOT ride).

Then there's the MESSAGE of the movie, and it is a MESSAGE, in hollering caps. Cameron presents his MESSAGE like a club to the head, bludgeoning the viewer's brain with anti-capitalism, environmentalism, mysticism, anti-reason, Luddism, collectivism, and Pre-Columbian nonsense. The villains, all of the humans save five, are American in the way the Left views America: aggressive, ruthlessly greedy, and borderline bloodthirsty. (The glee Cameron exhibits in obliterating the humans in Avatar is sickening.) The Na'vi, the indigenous creatures whom we're meant to praise, don't only hug trees, but fornicate with them (seriously).

Many critics have noted that Avatar's very existence is ironic. After all, everything it disparages (modernity, capitalism, technology) was responsible for its creation. I agree, but "irony" doesn't fully capture the degree of this contradiction. Alongside Terminator 2 and Titanic (two other Cameron films that were hostile toward technology), Avatar shows James Cameron either doesn't realize his dependence on technological innovation clashes with the Luddism of his films, or that he's shrewdly giving people what they want (visual dazzle), only to advance his philosophical MESSAGE.

That Cameron, a filmmaker with a seemingly infinite supply of hubris ("I'm King of the World!"), produces films that ultimately condemn hubris, is more than just irony. It's a joke. And the joke is on us.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Tyranny of Surplus!

Clay Shirky, being more-than-a-bit ironic, half-laments the advent of the interwebs:

The Internet has been in majority use in the developed world for less than a decade, but we can already see some characteristic advantages (dramatically improved access to information, very large scale collaborations) and disadvantages (interrupt-driven thought, endless distractions.) It's tempting to try to adjudicate the relative value of the network on the way we think by deciding whether access to Wikipedia outweighs access to tentacle porn or the other way around.

Unfortunately for us, though, the intellectual fate of our historical generation is unlikely to matter much in the long haul. It is our misfortune to live through the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race, a misfortune because surplus always breaks more things than scarcity. Scarcity means valuable things become more valuable, a conceptually easy change to integrate. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out.

To make a historical analogy with the last major increase in the written word, you could earn a living in 1500 simply by knowing how to read and write. The spread of those abilities in the subsequent century had the curious property of making literacy both more essential and less professional; literacy became critical at the same time as the scribes lost their jobs.

Of course, Shirky is being glib; the internet is a great boon. (After all, he published his musings online.) Shirky is illustrating the Schumpeterian reality that widespread access to publishing on the internet has reduced the absolute value of the (now) simple act of publishing. What's left? Quality, duh. It's not enough to have your voice heard. Your voice must hold some kind of value to matter.

(HT Tyler Cowan)

Song Break

"Chemtrails" is the best of post-Sea Change Beck. It sounds like nothing else he has produced -- eerie, paranoid, ethereal, and gorgeous. Beck's older material (Mellow Gold through Midnite Vultures) has held up better than his last few releases, all of which I enjoyed upon release. "Chemtrails" is the exception.

Ted Olson and Gay Marriage

Ted Olson's widely circulated Newsweek article is the best written, and most cogently argued, defense of gay marriage that I have read. That Newsweek's website titles the piece "The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage" is nonsense. It is the case for gay marriage, period:

Legalizing same-sex marriage would also be a recognition of basic American principles, and would represent the culmination of our nation's commitment to equal rights. It is, some have said, the last major civil-rights milestone yet to be surpassed in our two-century struggle to attain the goals we set for this nation at its formation.

This bedrock American principle of equality is central to the political and legal convictions of Republicans, Democrats, liberals, and conservatives alike. The dream that became America began with the revolutionary concept expressed in the Declaration of Independence in words that are among the most noble and elegant ever written: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The best part of the piece is Olson's rejoinder to those who cry that gay marriage will somehow ruin heterosexual marriage:

What, then, are the justifications for California's decision in Proposition 8 to withdraw access to the institution of marriage for some of its citizens on the basis of their sexual orientation? The reasons I have heard are not very persuasive.

The explanation mentioned most often is tradition. But simply because something has always been done a certain way does not mean that it must always remain that way. Otherwise we would still have segregated schools and debtors' prisons. Gays and lesbians have always been among us, forming a part of our society, and they have lived as couples in our neighborhoods and communities. For a long time, they have experienced discrimination and even persecution; but we, as a society, are starting to become more tolerant, accepting, and understanding. California and many other states have allowed gays and lesbians to form domestic partnerships (or civil unions) with most of the rights of married heterosexuals. Thus, gay and lesbian individuals are now permitted to live together in state-sanctioned relationships. It therefore seems anomalous to cite "tradition" as a justification for withholding the status of marriage and thus to continue to label those relationships as less worthy, less sanctioned, or less legitimate.

The second argument I often hear is that traditional marriage furthers the state's interest in procreation—and that opening marriage to same-sex couples would dilute, diminish, and devalue this goal. But that is plainly not the case. Preventing lesbians and gays from marrying does not cause more heterosexuals to marry and conceive more children. Likewise, allowing gays and lesbians to marry someone of the same sex will not discourage heterosexuals from marrying a person of the opposite sex. How, then, would allowing same-sex marriages reduce the number of children that heterosexual couples conceive?

This procreation argument cannot be taken seriously. We do not inquire whether heterosexual couples intend to bear children, or have the capacity to have children, before we allow them to marry. We permit marriage by the elderly, by prison inmates, and by persons who have no intention of having children. What's more, it is pernicious to think marriage should be limited to heterosexuals because of the state's desire to promote procreation. We would surely not accept as constitutional a ban on marriage if a state were to decide, as China has done, to discourage procreation.

Another argument, vaguer and even less persuasive, is that gay marriage somehow does harm to heterosexual marriage. I have yet to meet anyone who can explain to me what this means. In what way would allowing same-sex partners to marry diminish the marriages of heterosexual couples? Tellingly, when the judge in our case asked our opponent to identify the ways in which same-sex marriage would harm heterosexual marriage, to his credit he answered honestly: he could not think of any.

The simple fact is that there is no good reason why we should deny marriage to same-sex partners. On the other hand, there are many reasons why we should formally recognize these relationships and embrace the rights of gays and lesbians to marry and become full and equal members of our society.

Please note Olson's rejection of tradition as a legitimate argument. This is why I ridiculed Newsweek's decision to title the piece "The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage." The conservative case for anything begins and ends with tradition. If anything, Olson is making the libertarian argument, but that's splitting hairs.

Opening remarks began today in the federal trial over Proposition 8, within which Olson is a lead council for the lesbian couple who have brought the case. Here is the NYT on the tense first day.

Here's hoping Olson and Boies luck. They'll sure need it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Sad Statistic

The gap between the U.S. and Europe doesn't just exist at the top: 49% of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center in 2007 believed that society should "accept" homosexuality. Contrast that with attitudes in Europe where more than 80% of French, Germans and Spaniards had such a view. Only Catholic and conservative Poles felt as uncomfortable with the idea as Americans.
From Time.

NBC's Bad Bet

In what's become a bit of a scandal for NBC, the fourth-place network has reversed course and is giving Jay Leno his 11:35 time slot back, pushing Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show back 30 minutes to 12:05. From the NYT:
The announcement on Sunday, which followed several days of private negotiations inside NBC, is an embarrassing retreat for NBC, which had heralded Mr. Leno’s 10 p.m. show as transformational because it could be produced for far less money than expensive dramas that had been in that hour. The program had its premiere just 17 weeks ago.

Separately, the network announced an aggressive slate of pilot programs, and said it would scrap its early spring “infront” presentations for advertisers, instead opting for a traditional upfront in May.

Mr. Gaspin said the 10 p.m. experiment with Mr. Leno was “working financially” for the network. But it was not working for NBC’s affiliate stations. Many of the stations saw the ratings for their 11 p.m. newscasts drop precipitously after “The Jay Leno Show” debuted last September.

“The audiences that were watching the show were smaller than we anticipated, and they were not staying for the late news,” said Michael Fiorile, the chairman of the NBC affiliates board.

In some cities — including Indianapolis, at Mr. Fiorile’s station, WTHR — the NBC stations that had been No. 1 in the ratings at 11 p.m. were suddenly No. 2 for the first time in many years.

“It was a problem at 10, it was a problem at 11, it was a problem at 11:35,” Mr. Fiorile said.

According to the Associated Press, “some affiliates told NBC in December they would go public soon about their complaints if a change wasn’t made, or even take Leno’s show off the air.”
The only reason why this move is worthy of note is the colossal failure of NBC's strategy for programing its prime-time line up. The original plan was for Leno's cheaper talk show to replace the expensive scripted dramas that are typically shown at 10:00, thus providing the network a wider profit margin. It's an example of Schumpeter's concept of innovation. Not all innovations work. Autonomy always remains with the consumer. No matter how much NBC hoped Leno's star power would change the preferences of its viewers, it didn't work. Creative destruction demands that bad bets will result in failure. It's unclear how this change of course will affect NBC, but it's quite possible that one misfire will lead to another.

Political Correctness, Google Style

I've just tried replicating the Google queries shown below, and they're accurate. Wow.

Click on the image to enlarge.

(HT kontraband)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Netflix Queues Across America

The NYT has an interactive tool. Three selections (Mad Men season one, Obsessed, and Last Chance Harvey) show distinct demographic patterns, while just about everyone wanted to watch The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Fascinating.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Song Break

The Pixies' "Debaser" is the perfect combination of a killer guitar hook and the maniacal glee of Frank Black's vocal. It makes you want to jump for joy, or trash a hotel room. Or both. Classic.

Holding Off on Good Times

In his NYT column, John Tierney explores our tendency to delay pleasure, maybe to our detriment:
For once, social scientists have discovered a flaw in the human psyche that will not be tedious to correct. You may not even need a support group. You could try on your own by starting with this simple New Year’s resolution: Have fun ... now!

Then you just need the strength to cash in your gift certificates, drink that special bottle of wine, redeem your frequent flier miles and take that vacation you always promised yourself. If your resolve weakens, do not succumb to guilt or shame. Acknowledge what you are: a recovering procrastinator of pleasure.

There are two different forms of "procrastination" here. There's delaying consumption of what you see as "free," like using frequent flier miles or visiting a local landmark today. The second is waiting to consume something that is high-cost and "special," like an expensive bottle of wine. The first form seems to have more in common with "lazy" procrastination, an undervaluing of the worth of using a gift card or visiting a nearby museum, when weighed against the time it takes to enjoy their pleasures. But the second type, holding off on opening that special bottle of wine, implies an overvaluing of the pleasure consumption of that wine will bring at a future date. On this second type of procrastination, Tierney's article makes an interesting point: overvaluing consumption compounds upon itself:

Once you start procrastinating pleasure, it can become a self-perpetuating process if you fixate on some imagined nirvana. The longer you wait to open that prize bottle of wine, the more special the occasion has to be.

This seems intuitively true. Still, is it a problem? Isn't this just another form of saving? Replace the rare bottle of wine with a chunk of your current income, and the story becomes not one of procrastination (an ugly word), but of prudence (a noble word). It makes sense that someone is worse off if he forgoes the value of a gift card by letting it expire. But it's not so clear that waiting to drink that bottle of wine doesn't really bring greater pleasure by consuming it at a future date. As long as you don't get run over by a bus before opening it, that is.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Messy Origin of English Grammar

I'm about 1/8 of the way through Jack Lynch's The Lexicographer's Dilemma, and am already finding it highly enlightening. Lynch chronicles the codification of English grammar, which didn't happen until the 17th century. Before then, English was a messy, unruly language. There were no standards of spelling, syntax, or usage. Even Shakespeare was guilty of grammatical errors like using double negatives, dangling participles, and split infinitives.

What's so fascinating about the book is that the rules of proper English emerged as a bottom-up Hayekian process, not from an imposition of a few educated sticklers. As Lynch tells the story, grammar emerged side-by-side with rules of etiquette. During the 17th century, commerce created a new class of arrivistes in England, neither peasant nor landed gentry. As the newly rich found themselves in social situations they were unfamiliar with, they needed to learn the mores of the elite to better assimilate without social anxiety. Thus, etiquette guides were born. These etiquette guides also began to codify the manner of speaking the members of the upper class were using, for the sake of those who needed to ape their mannerisms.

In an earlier blog post I argued that, nowadays, correct pronunciation is a shibboleth for being educated. But in the 17th century, proper usage was a shibboleth for class. Grammar guides weren't demanded by the upper class. In fact, they despised anything that would allow the nouveau riche to enter their ranks unnoticed. It was economic prosperity that drove the need to sound like those who were already rich (due to government mandate), and thus led to the rules of grammar we use today.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Tyler Cowen on the "Fruitful" Aughts

Another contrarian perspective on the not-so-bad decade we've just left behind:
It may not feel that way right now, but the last 10 years may go down in world history as a big success. That idea may be hard to accept in the United States. After all, it was the decade of 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the financial crisis, all dramatic and painful events. But in economic terms, at least, the decade was a remarkably good one for many people around the globe.

The raging economic growth rates of China and India are well known, though their rise is part of a broader trend in the economic development of poorer countries. Ideals of prosperity, freedom and the rule of law have probably never been more resonant globally than they’ve been over the last 10 years, even if practice often falls short. And for all of the anticapitalistic rhetoric that has emerged from the financial crisis, national leaders around the world are embracing the commercialization of their economies.
That's from today's NYT. Here's the entire article.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Civilization Versus Barbarism

Kurt Westergaard, the 74-year-old Danish artist whose cartoon of Muhammad set off a cultural firestorm in 2005, was attacked by a Islamic terrorist on Friday. Thankfully, he survived the attack, which wasn't the first attempt at his life.

Here's the full story from the NYT.

For the sake of championing civilization, I publish the cartoon below.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Hank Williams

Hank Williams, the groundbreaking singer-songwriter, died 57 years ago today at the age of 29. Hank's music was my gateway to country music, not the current Nashville sound (which I don't prefer, but also don't disparage), but to the music of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, the wonderful Lucinda Williams (no relation), just to name a few. His music spans from haunting ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Alone and Forsaken") to jubilant ("I Saw the Light," "Settin the Woods on Fire"). His songs are standards of country music, just as the songs of the Beatles have become standards of rock music.

Reason's Damon Root on Hank:
Born in Mount Olive, Alabama on September 17, 1923, Williams shaped the American musical landscape with his haunting, high lonesome voice and vivid lyrical depictions of love, loss, sin, and salvation. In Nick Tosches’ memorable words, “Hank’s music—Hank himself, really—was a mixture of whiskey, lamb’s blood, and grave dirt.”

The author of numerous hits, including classics such as “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Move It On Over,” and “Cold, Cold Heart,” Williams had a vast influence over singers as different as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, and Bob Dylan. No history of American popular culture should be considered complete unless it recognizes his importance as both a performer and a songwriter.

Below is my favorite Hank song, "Long Gone Lonesome Blues."

The Aughts Weren't So Bad

Bryan Caplan has put to words a feeling I've had since reading Time's awful cover story about the aughts being the decade from hell.
When Michael Barone inventoried the top scares of the decade, I kept thinking, "Is that all you've got?" I'll grant that the Naughts were scarier than the Nineties; the 1991 collapse of the USSR was like waking up from a nightmare. But the Naughts were easily less scary than the eight other decades of the last hundred years. The 1910s? WWI and Bolshevism. The Twenties? Bolshevism and Depression. The Thirties and Forties: Nazism, Stalinism, Depression, and WWII. The Fifties through the Eighties: Global communism and nuclear war.

We shouldn't be whining about how hard the last ten years were. We should be breathing a sigh of relief that we did not live in more interesting times.
Excepting the nineties, the twentieth century was the century from hell, thanks to the twin bloodbath regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. The world has never again seen, thank god, such an enormity of evil. Al-Queda is like a juvenile delinquent next to their great wickedness.