Monday, November 26, 2012

Ford, Baird, and the anti-democractic irony to their claims of anti-democracy

The Mayor of Toronto face-plants hilariously during a football photo-op.
Incredibly-timed, given that the stumble happened a week before he was ordered to leave his office.
And doubly-unfortunate, given that he's a football coach.

The people are going to speak. I’m not going to have people saying that I can’t do this, I can’t do that." 

-Rob Ford (2012), soon-to-be former Mayor of Toronto, in response to a judge's ruling on a conflict-of-interest case, which evicted Ford from office (pending appeal)
2."We’ll go over the heads of the members of Parliament; go over the heads, frankly, of the Governor General; go right to the Canadian people."
-John Baird (2008), Conservative Party Member of Parliament, in response to the opposition parties reaching an agreement to oust the Conservatives from power (which would fail, following a) a misleading but effective campaign to vilify the move as illegitimate, and b) some procedural maneuvering by the Conservatives to delay the pivotal vote)

Earlier today, Toronto's buffoon of a mayor was found guilty in a conflict-of-interest case - he spoke and voted in a motion where he stood, explicitly, to either save or lose money - and told that he has 14 days to remove himself from his office. That first quote was one of his responses to the ruling. He's been booted because he violated the rules that are designed to protect democracy from people who behave self-interestedly. That's a provision worth protecting, especially from someone who sounds as if he's slightly megalomaniacal and thinks himself entirely above the law.
But then there's that second quote. John Baird sounded similarly unhinged and ridiculous in 2008 when an alliance of Liberal, New Democrat and Bloc Quebecois parties - who, together, outnumbered the Conservatives in Parliament - prompted him to display his total contempt for the Canadian system of democracy. As was rightly pointed out by interviewer Don Newman, Baird either didn't understand or didn't care to understand that his power was contingent, that it could be lost in an instant if the Tories, like Ford, continued to act as if it was actually absolute.
The thing is, and the lesson to take away from that second story, is that it might not matter. The Constitutional contingencies of political power? The rule of law? None of that matters so much as the appearance of legitimacy. Baird and the Conservatives were successful in controlling the narrative of the procedural wrangling, and successfully reframed a totally legal and transparent process, somehow, as an illegitimate and nefarious one. And as dumb as Ford might appear to be, that's the exact same card that he's playing. And it could still work.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Baseball follow-up: and sometimes, it's all love

I blogged yesterday about the ambivalence that I feel for pro sports. But today, I read a story that reminds me that, sometimes, I don't have to feel ambivalent. Sometimes, it's all good.

This is Ichiro, inarguably one of the world's most famous ballplayers:

For the first ten years of his career, he was also one of the world's best ballplayers - he collected the 4th-most Wins Above Replacement from 2001-10, during which he also broke the record for hits in a single-season.

Just as importantly, he's earned a reputation for being a really nice guy. How nice? This is the letter that he wrote to a fan in Seattle, how kept a running tally of how many hits Ichiro recorded every season on her Ichimeter: (apologies to Yahoo for so shamelessly stealing their image and story)

And, sure enough, Ichiro included a pair of shoes and a bat, all autographed. Pretty awesome stuff.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Love, hate, and baseball

Last week, the Toronto Blue Jays - the only sports team that has earned entirely uncritical, and unrepentant, love from me - made an insanely aggressive trade. It's not an exaggeration to say that it's probably the most exciting move that the team has made since they signed Roger Clemens, if not Rickey Henderson. And the latter happened almost 20 years ago.

But just as the trade reminds me why I love sports, it's equally capable of reminding me why I hate sports.

The Miami Marlins, with whom the Jays completed the trade, have now divested themselves of the large majority of their payroll. Last season, they started the year with (if I'm remembering correctly) ten players making over $2m, several of whom were also making north of $10m. Now, they have two, the highest-paid player making "only" $6m. In total, their payroll is now hovering somewhere around $20m.

So, why is this hate-worthy? Because the Marlins are infamous for exploiting baseball's revenue-sharing system. Designed to help poorer franchises compete with the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox, teams like the Marlins instead use the money to increase their profit. From 2002 to 2010 - that is, since current owner Jeffrey Loria bought the team - the perennially-cheap Marlins averaged a total player payroll of about $55m and a pre-sharing profit of something like $15m. After revenue sharing? Most like $45m - or about 80% of their total player costs. That's not a sports team that's being run out there to actually win. That's a team that's designed to lose, and, perversely*, make money doing it.

And a year after appearing to reverse course and doing badly - having to reverse course, because they had convinced the city and its politicians that they would build a good team if the public built them a $600m stadium - the Marlins have decided to return to the reliably profitable method of tanking on the cheap. And, honestly, who can blame them? There's a lot of chance and random variation that gets in the way of turning a profit with a winning-team; but there's a formula that guarantees monetary success if you do badly enough. Given those options, it's not surprising that one or more teams would take the good-for-business, bad-for-baseball approach. It makes more than a little bit of sense.

But, fuck, it really makes me hate pro baseball.

*I say "perversely" as if capitalism doesn't routinely reward failure. It does, of course. But it's still a fair description.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Miguel Cabrera didn't win the Triple Crown


In the NHL's 2010-2011 season, Daniel Sedin - a player in the Western Conference - led the league with 104 points and won the Art Ross Trophy as the leading scorer. The Eastern Conference's Martin St. Louis scored 99 points, second-best in the NHL, and was awarded nothing. Corey Perry - another Western Conference player - led the league with 50 goals and was awarded the Maurice Richard Trophy as top goal-scorer. Martin St. Louis's teammate, Steven Stamkos, scored 45 to lead the Eastern Conference, but nobody noticed or cared.


One of the oft-repeated arguments in favor of pitcher Jack Morris's election to the baseball Hall of Fame is that he led baseball in Pitcher Wins during the 1980s, with 162, and every other pitcher who led a particular decade in Pitcher Wins is in the Hall of Fame. Let's ignore, for the moment, that this is actually a pretty meaningless stat - that Pitcher Wins are heavily dependent on the quality of the pitcher's team, as well as dependent on having a lot of opportunities to start, and that we have much better stats available - and see whether that's actually true.

From 1977-1986 - a full decade - Ron Guidry led baseball with 163 Pitcher Wins. (Morris had 144 over the same time-frame.) Ron Guidry is not in the Hall of Fame. From 1984-1993, Frank Viola and Roger Clemens tied for the most Pitcher Wins, again with 1963. Frank Viola is also not in the Hall of Fame, and Clemens will be hard-pressed to shake the steroid-user label and qualify for the Hall, at least for the first few years.

So, even if I limit myself to the years where Morris was also active, it's pretty clear that the argument falls apart unless it's hilariously constrained. It's all about the easy and ready-made reference points, apparently.


Rogers Hornsby was arguably one of the five or ten greatest baseball players, ever. He has the second-highest career batting average, ever. He had six seasons where he posted at least 10 Wins Above Replacement, equaling Barry Bonds and one fewer than Willie Mays. (On the high-end, Babe Ruth had ten; Hank Aaron, though, had none.)

In 1922, Hornsby won the first of his Triple Crowns, meaning that he led the National League - all 8 teams - in batting average (AVG), home runs (HR), and runs batted in (RBI). In 1925, he did it again, but did it even better. This time, he led all of Major League Baseball in average, homers, and batted in.


This season, Miguel Cabrera led the American League in that baseball traditionalist's favorite fetishistic triumvirate of stats: AVG, HR, RBI. (It's actually eminently reasonable to fetishize HR, because there's no better indicator of raw power. But AVG is demonstrably inferior to on-base percentage at demonstrating what it's supposed to demonstrate, and RBI is almost useless - it's an opportunity stat, and not particularly reflective of ability. Plenty of awful players have driven in 100 RBI, provided that they hit in the middle of the order and get to play every game.)

But the American League, like the Eastern Conference, is just a subset of half the teams in the whole of Major League Baseball. Cabrera led all of baseball in HR and RBI, but came second (or third, arguably) league-wide in AVG, behind the National League's Buster Posey. Actually, he didn't even lead all Cabreras in AVG - the NL's Melky Cabrera was more than ten points higher, though he was one plate appearance short of "qualifying" for the batting title. (Although, that said, baseball has a rule that allows him to qualify by adding an extra "out" to his season line. Melky Cabrera requested that they not that, and they complied, but we don't have to also indulge him.)


Last season, Matt Kemp hit .324 with 39 HR and 126 RBI - a season very similar to the one that Miguel Cabrera just put up this year. But Kemp didn't win the Triple Crown and didn't win the MVP. (Although he probably should have. Even if we concede that he and MVP Ryan Braun were nearly identical as hitters, Kemp is a substantially better fielder at a much harder position.) Kemp led the National league is HR and RBI, and finished third in AVG. He also led all of baseball in RBI, was 3rd in HR, and 7th in AVG.

But let's be playful, for a moment, and try to imagine how Kemp could have won the Triple Crown.

Among National Leaguers, players on only the Brewers and Mets beat Kemp's batting average. Among American Leaguers, players on only the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, Tigers, and Blue Jays beat Kemp's AVG or HR. That means that Kemp's Triple Crown numbers were better than those posted by any player on the other 23 teams. Substitute the Brewers and Mets with any of the other 9 American League teams, and suddenly Matt Kemp has won a Triple Crown.

Actually, it's even easier than that. There are 14 teams in the AL and 16 in the NL. Miguel Cabrera had the best Triple Crown numbers among the players from 14 teams. Matt Kemp also had the best numbers among a group of 14 teams, but had the misfortune of playing in the larger League. If you drop the Brewers and Mets, you're left with 14 teams - the exact same number of teams and players that Cabrera was in competition with.


Getting to the point: The MVPs of baseball's two Leagues will be announced on Thursday, and the American League's MVP Trout vs. Cabrera race is being figured as something much bigger than the two players themselves: advanced stats vs. traditional ones, Wins Above Replacement (WAR) vs. the Triple Crown. But I'm going to suggest that this framing of the competition begs the question: because before we can ask whether it's more important to lead the league in WAR or in Triple Crown stats, we should probably confirm that Miguel Cabrera actually won the Triple Crown.

Baseball fans are probably perplexed, at this point - because Cabrera did win the Triple Crown, didn't he? Major League Baseball even created a trophy for it:

Obnoxious trophies aside, I'm gonna say it: Cabrera won squat. If Stamkos wasn't the Eastern Conference's Richard Trophy winner, if Kemp didn't also win a Triple Crown, then it makes zero sense for Cabrera to be the American League's Triple Crown winner. It's based on an arbitrary assignment of 14 teams to one League and 16 to another. It's misleading, at least insofar as people routinely refer to the Triple Crown as "baseball's Triple Crown". It's not a real Triple Crown.

Rogers Hornsby in 1925, leading all of baseball in the Triple Crown stats? That's a real Triple Crown, just like Corey Perry's 50 goals earned him a real Maurice Richard Trophy. Cabrera's impressive but nonetheless second-(or third-)best batting average? Second-best won Stamkos zero Richard trophies, which is precisely the number of Triple Crowns (and MVP awards) that Cabrera deserves.


Additionally hilarious thought: I'm willing to bet that the same people who would give Cabrera the MVP over Trout because the former won the AL Triple Crown would see things differently if there was only one MVP and not one for each league - you know, just like every other pro sports league. Because then we definitely wouldn't be talking about this Triple Crown thing - and without that traditionalist fetish symbol obscuring the view, Trout's superior numbers and performance are a whole lot easier to see.

Here's the thing, and the whole point of how hilariously inappropriate and deceptive the Triple Crown award actually is: if a player is the MVP of his league, then he should be the MVP regardless of (ostensibly) irrelevant alternatives. If Cabrera > Trout, then that should hold true whether we're considering him for AL MVP or the MVP of all baseball. But that's not actually true. Because Cabrera's argument hinges so totally on his Triple Crown. If we consider all of baseball - AL and NL - including Buster Posey (or Melky Cabrera) and his higher batting average, then Cabrera loses the Triple Crown and suddenly Trout > Cabrera. That's absurd. And, yet, that's how baseball traditionalists think.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Assorted post-American election thoughts


This is a single article, but it seems rather indicative of general response to the Republicans' loss in the USA's presidential election earlier this week: "Win for Barack Obama is existential crisis for American right wing." Now, I would clearly prefer Obama to Romney, (though, as I've pointed out to numerous people over the last week, Obama would almost certainly qualify as a Conservative, here, so he certainly doesn't do a whole lot for me) and it's definitely true that, in a two-party system, a party which relies on white people and the rural vote - in a country where both demographic populations are slowly declining - needs to reorient itself.

But "existential crisis"? "Destroyed"? "Destroying itself"? (There's about 80 million Google results for "Republican party +" either of those two.) "In crisis"? (Another 80 million results.) Jesus, people, I know that the 24 hour news cycle is some sort of textual-diarrhea-monster that requires constant feeding and regurgitation, but let's get real. Romney scored 48% of the vote. The Democrats have the slimmest possible majority in the Senate. The Republicans still have solid control of the House. If you want a "crisis", look at our last election, where the Bloc Quebecois was reduced to 4 seats (from 47) and the Liberals, having previously led the country from 1993-2004, had fallen to third-place and only 18% of the vote. That's awful. But losing 50% to 48%? Get real.


But it's still funny to see Republicans and their supporters totally lose their shit. And even funnier when they reinforce the stereotype of Republican-as-science-denying-neanderthal.

Here's one from Neil Stevens at Red State, who complains that the many polls that accurately predicted the outcome of the election where right because they were "rigged". (Which, I guess, is his way of saying they were biased against Romney. Because "rigged" is a hilarious non-sequitur, in the context of a poll.) The contentious bit - the "rigging" - was explained to The New Yorker by the director of Public Policy Polling thusly:

Jensen conceded that the secret to PPP’s success was what boiled down to a well informed but still not entirely empirical hunch. “We just projected that African-American, Hispanic, and young voter turnout would be as high in 2012 as it was in 2008, and we weighted our polls accordingly,” he explained. “When you look at polls that succeeded and those that failed that was the difference.”

Stevens jumps all over that word, "hunch". Which is stupid, firstly, because that's New Yorker writer Jason Zengerle's word, not Tom Jensen's. My guess - with word choices like "rigged" and "hunch" - is that neither Stevens nor Zengerle know a whole lot about statistics or, well, math. (Stevens also argues that "Jensen decided in advance what he wanted the electorate to look like," which appears to be totally unsupported and makes him sound completely unhinged.)

What pollsters like Jensen recognized is that there was bias in the raw data, (Republicans were over-represented, white people were over-represented, the demography of Independent voters was changing... and there's almost certainly more than they just didn't recognize) and the process of identifying and mitigating the effects of bias are not hunch-based or an act of rigging, it's entirely scientific - not precise or incontrovertible, mind you, but based in some sort of logical process, which is all you can ask for. (One of those biases had to do with party affiliation, which is actually kind of interesting and you can read all about here.) Now, you can argue with the methods they employ to identify those biases or the methods they employ to mitigate those effects, but Stevens' response - any alteration to the original numbers is witchcraft - is embarrassing.


It was a bit silly when Democrats said they would move to Canada after Bush was elected (and subsequently didn't). It was even sillier when Republicans said they would move to Canada after Obama was elected (because your response to Obamacare is to move to a country with universal health care? wha?) But this tops them all: an American teenager who wants to move to Australia:

And why is this funnier? Because, as it turns out, Australia's Prime Minister is an atheist and a woman. Yowza.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

George Lucas and the feeling that something's been left unsaid

So, George Lucas is selling Lucasfilm to Disney for $4 billion. That's interesting, sure, but not nearly as interesting as the oddly evasive response that he gave when, in a video (the one above) titled "The Future of Star Wars Movies" on the Star Wars Youtube channel, he was prompted by an interviewer to talk about the "big news" concerning Star War:

"Um, I always said I wasn't going to do any more, and that's true, I'm not going to do any more. But that doesn't mean I'm unwilling to turn it over to Kathy [Kathleen Kennedy, co-chair of Lucasfilm] to do more. I have story treatments of 7, 8, and 9, and a bunch of other movies. And obviously there are hundreds of books and comics, and everything you possibly imagine. So, you know, I sort of move that treasure trove of stories and various things to Kathy and I have complete confidence that she's gonna take them and make great movies."

Unfortunately, there's no actual news there. No announcement of any kind, except that there are lots of Star Wars stories and someone else is now responsible for them. We already knew that part. (So, immediately thereafter, Kathleen Kennedy jumps in to provide the "big news" announcement that Lucas so totally botched.)

But you know what's really fucking weird about that whole response? Not once does he say "Star Wars". And that's not an easy thing to do, when he's been primed to talk about Star Wars, he's been asked to talk about a new Star Wars film, and he is, in fact, quite clearly talking about Star Wars. And, yet, he can't bring himself to actually name the baby that he put up for sale. It's evasive in the most Freudian way - he can't name it, for fear that in naming what he's done it'll become real. I may be reading too much into it, (when is that not possible?) but I think there's something deeply revealing about that. And sad.

It doesn't help that Lucas looks, at best, uncomfortable through the whole thing. And, at worst, he looks absolutely miserable. He cracks a joke - which Kennedy totally oversells, thus making it even more uncomfortable - but he doesn't smile throughout the whole video.

It's really unsettling. And maybe it's just that Lucas is feeling seller's remorse, but it also seems like there's something more to this story than a mere passing of the torch.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

University: It's not (just) about the ROI

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog that responded to the whole Margaret Wente plagiarism controversy that was scandalizing the folks who cared about that sort of thing. (Which is to say, not many of us. But those who cared? We cared a whole lot.) And now? Margaret Wente is back to pissing people off - and, largely, the same group of people!

Accused plagiarist Margaret Wente.
Am I including this picture because I want to increase the likelihood
that her Google results will find this blog? Why, yes. Yes I am.

Now, I don't want to dignify Wente's claptrap with a prolonged summary of its argument. Everyone who follows these debates is already familiar with it, and this particular iteration doesn't deserve special treatment. But she (mis)identifies two problems with the Canadian university system, and I want to critique these in particular:
  1. You can't make universities both broadly accessible and ensure high quality.
  2. You need some sort of transparency about the Return On Investment, if not a guarantee that the ROI will justify the time and money.

The first premise is just plain wrong. It assumes that, because Canada provides better access to a university education than most other states, a university education is therefor accessible to and attainable by all Canadians. That's fundamentally untrue - millions of people have been shut out before they even get a chance to consider university, and millions more who want to go will realize that they simply can't afford the time commitment or the debt.

Now, it is true that we want to encourage continued participation. We (that is, instructors) don't want to crush our students, (not without good reason, anyway!) and we want to give them the chance to succeed. But we can't force them to succeed - they have to do that on their own. And I resent the implication that wanting to be accessible and inclusive requires that we diminish the quality of our teaching or evaluation. In fact, it's in those moments where someone (me, sometimes) is at their most inaccessible and exclusionary that the teaching devolves into an alienating experience where no one but the people who already hold The Knowledge seem to learn anything.

As for the second, well, ROI is simply a terrible metric to use when you're evaluating the quality of an education. I mean, is it the fault of the school or industry that, for instance, a BA in Political Science or Philosophy is going to fail to meet the parameters of the HR keyword search when you apply to work at Rogers? Is it the fault of the school or industry that one school's name carries more cultural caché than another? It doesn't matter how good your education is if you don't get the chance to demonstrate what you've learned, and increasing the transparency about ROI will do absolutely nothing to address a systemic bias against liberal arts degrees and small schools.

In fact, the liberal arts, specifically, shouldn't be privileging ROI at all. (I'm not going to lie, though. It matters that you can find work after university. But your salary shouldn't be the meter stick against which your education is measured. Or, honestly, against which you measure yourself.) I'm not sure whether it was intended as such, but three days after Wente's column was published, this fantastic rebuttal appeared at Inside Higher Ed. The gist of it is this: the liberal arts make us better citizens and better people. They matter because they contribute to a healthier, more self-aware, and socially-engaged society. And ROI doesn't capture all of that. (Nor do those algorithms that compile applicant lists of "qualified" applicants for massive corporations. And by "all of that," I mean "any of that.")

*     *     *

I'm willing to make two concessions, neither of which is central to Wente's theses.

One, while the university system may recognize high achievement - by conferring Honours or attaching some kind of distinction to the degree - it doesn't do so in a way that is easily comprehended outside that same system. So, when two people with the same type of degree apply for the same work in industry, the people doing the hiring either don't or can't distinguish between their relative levels of achievement. Essentially, and assuming everything else is equal, graduating on academic probation is just as valuable as graduating magna cum laude. (At York University, the two levels of distinction are magna cum laude and summa cum laude. Which one is better? If you can't tell, how the hell is a prospective employer supposed to know?)

Sure, you need to do more than merely participate, but you certainly aren't rewarded in any meaningful way for being the highest achiever. (Well, you can go to graduate school, I guess!) And this doesn't necessarily mean that I agree with Wente - the universities, after all, do confer the distinctions that indicate someone was at the top of their class. The problem, rather, is that industry doesn't seem to care.

Two, Wente is spot-on with her complaint that every university "churn[s] out more surplus PhDs" and that "more of the work load [is] borne by itinerant teaching serfs who can’t find full-time jobs." In fact, I'm especially fond of the expression "itinerant teaching serfs." This is a huge problem. But it's also one that won't be solved by the solutions that she vaguely gestures toward. In fact, it would probably exacerbate them - those same itinerant teaching serfs would no longer be teaching serfs.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

LHN: In 2013, the world will turn bronze

So, there was a fashion insert in NOW Magazine this week, and I saved it because it the ad on the back over unsettled me. And it unsettled me because, in spite of the obvious attempt to include a racially diverse group of lads and ladies, they are all the exact same colour:

The company, by the way, is called Look Hot Naked. And no, I have no idea what the product is - they're building the brand before they even tell us what they're selling. Which is effective, I suppose - earlier today, Victoria and I were talking about how well a similar approach worked for IOGO, the yogurt company. Personally, though? I find it annoying.

But whatever it is? It turns hot people into a uniform-bronze. (There's an academic paper here. And no, it's probably not flattering.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The big lie about plagiarism

One of the big lies that Universities tell their students is that plagiarism isn't worth it: that you can't get away with it (not forever, at least) and that the punishment isn't worth the risk.

In more than six years, and more than 400 students, I've "caught" four people. I write "caught" because two of them were actually nabbed by software (Turnitin) and I could never prove that the third plagiarized - it was clear, from the change in font and suddenly excellent prose, that she didn't write it, but I couldn't find any evidence. The fourth included three pages that were lifted directly from a single source, no quotation marks, with a footnote at the end of the third page. The student claimed total ignorance to the conventions of referencing and attribution, which I was inclined to believe because there was certainly no way I would mistake those three pages for her own work - she was astoundingly sloppy, not deceptive.

Of these four cases, two were given no penalty at all and the three-page non-quoter was allowed a re-write, albeit with a huge penalty. (She still failed the assignment.) The other case, one of the essays caught by Turnitin, was the only one that I thought was truly egregious. Half the essay contained other people's words, and they had been cribbed from multiple sources - three sentences from Author A, two paragraphs from Author B, and so on. And then a few conjunctions and phrases tossed in just to break up the strings of borrowed words.

For all that, though, she barely failed the assignment and the plagiarism was never actually reported. Why? Because she was a fourth-year student and the instructor didn't want to jeopardize her graduation. He also didn't want to make the school look bad, justifying it with word to the effect of 'if we're only catching her now, how many other essays do you think she's plagiarized?' Evidently, ass-covering is more important than transparency and, y'know, ethics.

Plagiarism isn't taken all that seriously outside of the academy, either. I'm thinking about these things because of this Media Culpa story about the loathsome Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, which notes that she has problems with migrating quotation marks, misattribution, and eerily derivative word choice and phrasing. From The Canadian Journalism Project:
In 2009, a J-Source piece by Anne McNeilly, a Ryerson University journalism professor, looked at a Wente column on cell phones that was strikingly similar to one written by The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd just two days earlier. And Carol Wainio, who runs the Media Culpa blog that has been the reference for many today in discussing the long-time Globe and Mail columnist, has spent a considerable amount of time over the last 18 months picking apart Wente’s work. [...] Since that initial post, there have been at least 31 separate posts on Media Culpa about Wente or about The Globe’s issued corrections or editors notes added to her work.
The Globe and Mail "disciplined" Wente - though it's unclear what that word means, and she hasn't lost her job - but didn't actually called it plagiarism, even if it does meet the definition of the word. And Wente, for her part, hardly owned up to it. What's worse, her response reeked of classlessness. I'll only grab a couple pieces:
I’m far from perfect. I make mistakes. But I’m not a serial plagiarist. What I often am is a target for people who don’t like what I write.


I haven’t always lived up to my own standards. I’m sorry for my journalistic lapses, and I think that, when I deserve the heat, I should take it and accept the consequences. But I’m also sorry we live in an age where attacks on people’s character and reputation seem to have become the norm. Most of all, I regret the trouble I’ve created for my Globe colleagues by giving any opening at all to my many critics. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be any openings. In the real world, there are.
In the first selection, which appeared in the third paragraph of Wente's column, she frames the accusation as part of a witch-hunt. It's not the plagiarism that's the problem, but her politics. This isn't professional, it's personal. These aren't the words of someone who's sorry for her mistake, or who even necessarily recognizes that she's made one. This is someone who feels that she was unfairly targeted by a blogger with a grudge, and thus wants to subtly discredit the accuser. (Which continues, more explicitly, when she dubs Media Culpa's Carol Waino as "a self-styled media watchdog" who "has been publicly complaining about my work for years".)

The second selection I've quoted, Wente's final paragraph, is just as hilarious and telling. It's hilarious because Wente, a right-wing op-ed writer, is precisely one of those people who's built a career on attacking the character and reputation of people who are politically opposed to her. And it's telling because her final stated regret is not that she embarrassed herself or her paper, but that she has "giv[en] any opening at all to my critics". Wente vaguely admits to giving ammunition to her enemies, but she can barely admit that she's made a mistake. I mean, here's another one:
Journalists know they’re under the microscope. If you appropriate other people’s work, you’re going to get nailed. Even so, sometimes we slip up. That isn’t an excuse. It’s just the way it is.
If "you" then "you're"... what is this, a hypothetical?

Wente does, thankfully, admit in spots that she's screwed up. But it's all described in a fairly dismissive way - she should have been more cautious and careful, and apologizes for being "extremely careless" when she copied another journalist's sentence word-for-word. (Although, as Wainio points out, that's not the only part of the column that Wente more-or-less copied from elsewhere.) But that's the only thing that she actually apologizes for. The rest? The fundamental problem, as Wainio aptly describes it, of "erod[ing] public trust"?  That's just the opinino of over-zealous, self-styled watchdogs who are out to attack honest folk's character and reputation, I guess.

And this is the what out students hear about and see when plagiarism happens - an inability to admit guilt, a refusal to punish the guilty. How can they possibly take us seriously when we tell them that plagiarism is a big deal and leads to big trouble? How can we take ourselves seriously?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A knock on the defense offered for Yunel Escobar

A brief update on the ongoing Yunel Escobar and the "tu ere maricon" controversy, which I first blogged about here and here.

The common defense that's being used, in the hours and days following the press conference, is that the possible negative connotation of the word is being overblown. Latin American players and reporters have been quick to say that there's a translation problem - both linguistically and culturally speaking - and that it really wasn't a big deal. "Maricon" means a lot of things, they say, and lots of people use it everyday and in casual conversation with friends and family. So, no problem, right?

Well, I don't really buy it. In fact, the culture-gap/culture-clash defense strikes me as pretty weak. Worse, it strikes me as, at best, a bit clueless and, at worst, indicative of a much larger problem with homophobia and a misunderstanding of how it operates and perpetuates. (And I'm not even gonna go anywhere near the "boys will be boys" type of defense that's been offered by Dirk Hayhurst and others. Honestly, if I need to explain why that one is unbelievably fucking problematic, you're probably not going to understand anything that follows, anyway.)

Players and coaches like Omar Vizquel and Ozzie Guillen quickly defended Escobar by saying that Latin Americans use the word in casual conversation with their friends all the time, to show them affection, to tease them, and/or to emasculate them. 
  • Vizquel: "We say that word very often, and to us, it doesn’t really mean that we are decreasing anybody or talking down to people or anything like that. It’s just a word we use on an everyday basis. I don’t know why people are taking this so hard and so out of place or out of proportion."
  • Guillen: "In my house, we call (each other) that word every 20 seconds. I've got three kids," Guillen added.  "For us, it's like 'What's up, bro? What's up, dude?' It's how you say it and to who you say it. But that's our country.

Now, admittedly, I'm no expert or cultural anthopologist with expertise with respect to the Caribbean. But I am keenly aware of just how much more dangerous it is to be an LGBTQ person in Central America than it is in Canada. And that difference, that danger? I'm going to suggest that it has a lot to do with the ease with which people like Vizquel and Guillen can brush aside Escobar's words. (Just a quick note: I am not so naive as to think that race isn't playing a factor in the way that the Toronto media has taken up the story. But that's another story for another day.)

Because this defense sounds an awful lot like "when we say 'fag', we mean you're too sensitive. we don't mean you're gay or anything'." This sounds an awful lot like "when i say he's a 'pussy', i mean he's weak. it doesn't have anything to do with women, so it can't be sexist". It sounds like they don't recognize the implied equivalence - that if, say, "pussy" means "weak" but it also means "woman", then a connection is implied between "weak" and "woman". It sounds like they're pretending - or are genuinely oblivious to - the power that words carry, the things that they say in excess of what we intend for them to say all the time.

And that power? It doesn't go away if we stop acknowledging it - it just becomes invisible. As Irene Monroe puts it, in her coverage of this story, "if the phrase 'TU ERE MARICON' goes unchecked or is not challenged, it allows people within their culture to become unconscious and numb to the use and abuse of the power and currency of this homophobic epithet -- and the power it still has to thwart the daily struggles of many of us to ameliorate LGBTQ relations." Being unconscious or numb to the word's connotations through overuse isn't a good excuse - like I said before, it's indicative of the larger, systemic problem.

The response of people like Guillen and Vizquel is also a remarkably unempathetic. Every one of these responses has, from what I can tell, been offered by straight Latin American men who use it in conversation with other straight Latin American men and note that other straight Latin American men don't find it all shocking. WHAT A SURPRISE. But what about all of the gay men that they talk to? (I mean, in addition to the men that Escobar employs.) Or that don't talk to them because the language makes them feel unsafe? Or, worse yet, who join in the discourse because they would feel more unsafe if they didn't play along? Because - guess what? - that happens all the time. They don't exist, I guess. In fact, if the media-response outside a couple papers in Toronto is any indication, the whole queer community doesn't exist! Or, you know, you could look for them, because you would find them.

*     *     *

As a totally unrelated aside, I can recall the comic book creator John Byrne explaining that, when he was a kid growing up in England during the 50s, it was not uncommon for the English to use the word "nigger" in everyday conversation. He said that it was even relatively common, at least where he grew up, to give the name "Nigger" to cats and dogs. And, he adds, it wasn't racist at all! But how's that possible, you ask? Because the white people who used it didn't think it was racist.

That makes sense, right? A bunch of white people casually use a derogatory word for non-white people, and they apply it endearingly to animals and, of course, without malice or intent to harm - so that's totally cool, right? Because who could be offended by a word loaded with painful historical baggage? Who could be offended if that word's given as a name to a dog? End of story.

And if that logic strikes you as totally fucked up... then maybe you can see that I was lying when I said it was a totally unrelated aside.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Yunel Escobar press conference: well, that was a complete disaster

If I'm being charitable, there are two things that went right with the 30-minute press conference that ended less than a half-hour ago, where Yunel Escobar and the Blue Jays were asked to explain why he wrote, in Spanish, "you're a faggot/pussy" under his eyes. (You can find the picture in a blog I wrote yesterday, found here.)
  1. He apologized and said it won't happen again.
  2. The Blue Jays will donate money to You Can Play, a Toronto-based charity that combats homophobia in sports.
         Yunel Escobar.

And that's it. And that covers two or three minutes of the content of the press conference. So, what went wrong? All of it, pretty much:
  •  Escobar said the words "didn't mean anything", that he didn't "intend to offend anyone", and it was "misinterpreted". As far as apologies go, this veers dangerously close to victim-blaming. That is, he implied nothing, which means it's our fault for inferring something hurtful. And that's bullshit.
  • Escobar - and his teammate Edwin Encarnacion, via reporter Shi Davidi - said that the slur isn't necessarily a slur, depending on the "context" (Escobar's word, via a translator). Encarnacion said it was a "joke". Right. Just like when someone, for instance, uses "gay" but actually means 'ugly' or 'stupid'? That's a joke too. In no way are they implying an equivalence between "gay" and "stupid". No, not at all. It's just a joke. 
  • And what of "context", anyway? Escobar said it wasn't meant to be read by anyone. (Which is curious, since the manager, John Farrell, said that he often writes words under his eyes, and they're usually inspirational. Which suggests that they can and are meant to be read. But that's not the most egregious failure of communication between staff and players. More on that in a bit...) I don't know whether he's being disingenuous or he's actually that stupid, but there's no explanation that makes sense except to assume that he was directing it at the Boston Red Sox - the team the Jays were playing that day. And if he's directing it at the opposition? Well, that context lends itself to the interpretation that he did mean to call them "fags" or "pussies", and that he did mean it pejoratively. No other conclusion makes sense.
  • That other moment where Farrell wasn't quite credible? It took forever, but one of the reporters eventually asked whether homophobia is a problem in baseball locker rooms. (A classic response to this kind of incident is to frame it as an isolated incident - to invoke the "one rotten apple" fallacy.) And Farrell completely blew it. He said it isn't a problem, but any of us who have played sports at any level know that he's hilariously wrong. As Dirk Hayhurst, the former Blue Jay, wrote yesterday, "Crude, offensive humor is a part of the lexicon of the clubhouse. Always has been, probably always will be." So, let's be honest, at least. Because telling such a transparent lie just totally destroys your believability.
  • And Farrell dropped the ball at least one more time, too. When asked why he didn't notice the words, he said that doesn't pay attention to them, and that no one really does. And he didn't admit that he should be looking - in fact, he took no responsibility at all. That's a catastrophic failure of leadership. The first words out of Farrell's mouth should have been an admission of fault - an admission that he didn't look, but he should have. While, sure, Escobar deserves blame for hilariously poor judgement, Farrell is the guy letting him write on his face and failing to vet those same words. And, plain and simple, he's the boss. A huge part of the manager's job in baseball is to take pressure off of his players, to mediate between players and umpires, players and management, players and media, players and players... But Farrell just threw Escobar to the wolves.
  • This next criticism applies to everyone who was sitting on the panel. Until a reporter said the word "homophobia", not one of them used the word. Escobar and his translator said "gay", (as in, embarrassingly, "my hairdresser is gay") but no one addressed the elephant in the room directly. What they did do was admit that there was a "problem". Repeatedly, Farrell and the GM, Alex Anthopolous, referred to homophobia as "the problem". A problem so serious, evidently, that we can't even refer to it by name. For fuck's sake, guys. Couldn't you have spoken to a subject matter expert or PR consultant before doing this? Couldn't you at least bring a diversity or sensitivity trainer in to coach you? Which leads me to my final point...
  • ...which is that, aside from throwing $90k or so to charity, it felt like the Jays came into this press conference with no plan at all. No talking-points that made sense, no idea of how to talk about the issue, no clear indication that they had received advice or vocabulary (much less some quick mediation or counselling) from a gay rights or equity or anti-oppressive educator. (Hey, Blue Jays! I can even recommend my friend to you!) They. Looked. Totally. Lost. And what might the Jays or Escobar do after the money is donated? I have absolutely no idea. Hope that everyone forgets, maybe? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Yunel Escobar wrote what on his face, now?

In one of life's great mysteries, my typical orientation to sport is the total opposite of how I just generally read life. Niney-nine percent of the time, I'm all about the qualitative analysis and teasing out the nuance that numbers miss; when I'm talking games, though, I'm usually discussing data and metrics.

So, when people say that a ballplayer is "a winner", I mock them for seizing a quality that's hilarious undefinable. And when they say someone has a "bad attitude", I ask for the proof that it affects performance. Thus, when the Blue Jays traded for - and extended the contract of - Yunel Escobar, a player infamous for being surly and supposedly a bad teammate, I was thrilled. Here's a guy who's undervalued and underpaid for reasons that have nothing to do with his numbers. So long as he's performing above his pay-grade, he's a good thing.

And then, this happened.

Strangely enough, I learned about the existence and meaning of "tu ere maricon" only a couple weeks ago - at a World Cup qualifying game between the Canadian men's team and Panama. It's a homophobic slur, most commonly translated as "you're a faggot". And it's just fucking awful to see it scrawled across any athlete's face. If there's a way to cut or suspend him without paying him - and I'm pretty certain that there isn't, unfortunately - I am all for it. Just get rid of him. Find a bottomless pit and drop him in it.

It gets worse, though. Because fans are already doing cartwheels in an attempt to defend or dismiss his actions. For instance, from the page where the photograph was first posted:

  • "Let's not make such a big deal about mind your business and he will mind his business."
  • "relax. its not big deal"
  •  "Ho hum - obviously he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer"
  • "what ever happened to free speech? dont get me wrong i dont hate gays but its just a name!!! get over it, soft people"

 Sometimes, people are just awful. And no number can justify that.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Personal stuff

A little over a week ago, my sister-in-law died. And over the last week or so, I must have retold the story of how she and my brother met a half-dozen times. (I should note that he's claimed, before, that it's not my story to tell. Given that the story takes place at my pseudo-wedding party, though, I think it's fair to suggest I have some ownership of it.) It's short, but it's worth repeating and recording.

At some point during the night of this party, my brother and his friend started to talk about how cute one of the servers was. They were, of course, all talk - neither one actually had the guts to say anything to her.

Finally, the wife of another friend, who was tired of listening to them, decided to approach the girl and tell her that both of these guys were interested in getting her number. But she had to choose just one of them.

So, she asked her co-worker, which one should she choose: 'the cute guy or the one in the suit?' (Her co-worker said you should "always" pick the suit.)

She chose the cute guy.

*     *    *

My daughter - who's now closer to four than she is to three, but was born in January and can't start school until next fall - was moved to a new classroom in daycare last week. The daycare has (i think) four different levels, and she's graduated from the third (pre-school) to the fourth (kindergarten - thusly called because the kids are at least three-and-a-half and because the majority of kids in the class are actual kinders, doing half-days at the school and the other half here).

For the most part, she's been really excited about this - she has a couple friends in the class (though the number of kids is much smaller and the number of friends is, accordingly, lower) and the daycare decided to acclimatize her first, having her visit for a couple hours every day for a week beforehand.

But now she realizes that the move is for keeps, and she mentioned both yesterday and this morning that she wants to go to "my classroom" - meaning the pre-school room. It's not that she doesn't like the kinder class, it's just that it doesn't feel like home, yet.

The funny thing, for me, is that I'm feeling the exact same way. This fall is the first in more than six years where I'm not teaching at York University. (Before May, I had taught there for more than four years consecutively, with a break of no more than a few weeks in any one year.) But I am teaching at the University of Toronto, though in a very different faculty (Engineering vs. Humanities) and a somewhat different capacity (a few not-quite-traditional teaching roles).

I actually really like it, here, and the work seems interesting... but it doesn't quite feel like home.

Monday, August 20, 2012

"Gotcha!" questions

I'm pretty sure that anyone reading this blog is familiar with Todd Akin and his stupefying comment that "legitimate rape" rarely leads to pregnancy because women's bodies are designed, somehow, (magically?) to prevent it. (The comment is rhetorical gold. It both begs the question - so, what's an "illegitimate" rape, then? - and invokes the authority of science where no supporting science exists.)

Almost as disturbing, though, is the media characterization of his stupidity as a "flub". Google is currently returning 178k results for "todd akin flub", two of the top three being from ABC ("Campaign flub by GOP Senate candidate...") and CNN ("A flub by a Republican Senate candidate..."). For the record, "todd akin  misogyny" and "todd akin misogynist" return 140k and 119k hits, respectively.

But this characterization is equally moronic. A flub is something that's comical, accidental, and virtually harmless. A Freudian slip is a flub. Tripping over my own feet and missing a ground ball in a game of softball is a flub. Outtakes or gag reels that are set to hilarious kazoo music. Consciously and pointedly verbalizing your misogyny and scientific ignorance, on the other hand, is decidedly not a flub. It is almost the exact opposite of a flub.

The choice of "flub" reminds me of Sarah Palin and her numerous complaints about "gotcha questions" from the media - another word-branding exercise designed to obscure the stupidity of a politician. Now, "gotcha questions" do exist, and journalists do try to catch people saying the wrong thing, contradicting themselves, or simply lying. It happens. But it's also totally legitimate. And it's also their job to do this. Good journalism should include gotcha questions. And just as those questions shouldn't be reduce to a game of "gotcha", which subsequently diminishes the importance of the question, we shouldn't reduce the answers to "flubs", which makes them seem awfully inconsequential.

(For the sake of levity, I'll include a link to a slideshow from New York Magazine that describes the various incidents that Palin has characterized as "gotcha" moments. Unsurprisingly, all of them are simply cases of journalists doing exactly what you would expect of a reasonably ethical journalist.)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Movies I've watched in the last month: Chronicle, Ted, Amazing Spider-man, Moonrise Kingdom

When I finished watching Chronicle on a flight to Newfoundland, I was seriously wondering whether it was the best superhero movie I've ever seen. (In retrospect, I was just really surprised by how good it was and this probably isn't true. Also, it's not quite the compliment that it sounds like, because I'm a grumpy old man when it comes to superhero movies.) A massive amount of credit for its quality has to go to Dane DeHaan, who played Andrew. In the hands of a worse actor, his character could have easily slipped into cliché and felt laughably pathetic. As it is, though, his transformation into a supervillain - especially since it's not initially clear whether his 'origin story' maps more easily on to that of a good guy or bad guy - is probably the most impressive and convincing in the short history of the film genre.

While Ted isn't technically a Frat Pack/Apatow Mafia movie, it feels an awful lot like one. The main character is a 30-something in arrested development, pot-head, dead-end job, hot girlfriend, fart jokes. With one important difference, mind you, as pointed out by my friend Noa: in the end, his girlfriend accepts that he'll never change and he isn't forced to grow up. There's an added wrinkle, of course - this isn't Seth Rogen or Steve Carrell, it's Mark Wahlberg, and every woman in the movie delivers at least one line about how he's really hot and charming. (As opposed to the usual protagonist in the man-child genre, who is average-looking, at best, out-of-shape, and funny in a self-deprecating or depressing way. If he's funny at all.) So, the lesson seems to be that you don't have to be the big wheel so long as you look like one. Okay, then.

If I had never watched another superhero movie, or if The Amazing Spider-man had been released in 1999, I'm certain that I would have loved it and thought it was the greatest thing ever. As it is, I thought it was good. (Better than I expected. But I saw it a month after it was released, and I expected it to be terrible.) It also shamelessly borrows, steals, and simply rips-off every superhero movie that came before it - it feels more like a mash-up or a Greatest Hits compilation than a film in its own right. It looks like the director was trying to do a Dark Knight version of Spidey; the villain's masterplan is basically Magneto's from X-Men, and visually resembles Loki's from Avengers; the Lizard's face looks like Voldemort's, and he sounds like him, too, (Seriously: compare Rhys Ifans' "pEEtuh pAHkuh" to Ralph Fiennes' "hAIRee pAHtuh". Eerie.) and the way that Peter's origin has been tied to his parents also feels very Potter-ish. Also, James Garfield has Edward Cullen hair. I could also complain about the curious way that, aside from Gwen, the film is both patently unfunny and completely sidelines every female supporting character, including, unforgivably, Aunt May. But I'd rather say one nice thing: Andrew Garfield is a better Spider-man than Tobey Maguire.

I recently applied for a job where I was asked to name my favorite movie. I never know how to answer this question - I don't have a "favorite" - so I went with The Royal Tenenbaums. But I think that Moonrise Kingdom might actually be Wes Anderson's best movie. Watching it, you get the feeling that Anderson actually gets what it's like to be 12. It is, strangely, his most serious film, but only because he takes the characters so seriously. So, while it might be absurd in places - each adult is reduced to a caricature (most notably, the character known only as Social Services) as they might be imagined by a 12 year old - it's a very respectful kind of absurdity. There's one particularly memorable moment for me, when an enraged Bill Murray effortlessly tears away the tent that the two 12 year olds are cowering inside of. None of them say anything, but Murray stands there silently for just a moment, as if realizing that his reaction was needlessly destructive and totally ridiculous. But he doesn't admit it, and it lasts only for that moment, because grown-ups are like that.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Olympic soccer: rules and dives

Two quick responses to Olympic women's soccer:

1) Without getting into too much detail - because if you care, you already know; and if you don't, you can just read about it here - a semi-final game in Olympic soccer might have been decided by a referee's decision to invoke an arcane and rarely used rule that says a goalkeeper can't hold on to the ball for more than 6 seconds. (How rare and arcane? Apparently, no sports writer can find mention of it in an international or major domestic league game - men's or women's - since 2002. That's ten years, and probably tens of thousands of games.) What makes this rule especially damaging is that the opposing team is awarded a free-kick directly in front of the goal.

For baseball fans, this would be like enforcing the "12-second" rule for pitchers. What "12-second" rule, you ask? The one that's never actually used, yet remains in the rulebook:

8.04 When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call “Ball.” The 12-second timing starts when the pitcher is in possession of the ball and the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher. The timing stops when the pitcher releases the ball.

Hilariously, the average pitcher in Major League Baseball is nowhere near the ostensible "limit" of 12 seconds per possession - it's actually more like 20. And yet, an umpire could suddenly decide to call this rule, and the pitcher would have no substantive reason to object, except on the grounds that no one calls it. Which is simply a disaster waiting to happen. If officials don't use it, the rulebook should lose it.

*     *     *

2) I often find men's soccer painful to watch. It's the diving. I just can't stand to watch people pretend to be fouled and then pretend to be hurt. And I like watching women's soccer because it there's almost none of that. And not only is there virtually no diving, but it seems like these women will collide and run over each other and get right back up - to put it simply, they 'suck it up'.

At first, this seems really unintuitive. We expect women's sports to have (patronizing) rules in place to protect them - women's hockey, for instance, doesn't allow body checking at any level - and we expect, in North America, at least, that men will behave in typically masculine ways and eschew diving or any other behavior that might make them seem weak.

That last bit might be the important part, though. When I was watching Canada play Great Britain, the commentators suggested that the stylistic difference between the women's and men's games was cultural - the women's game, and it's first powerhouse-teams - emerged in the USA and East Asia, where diving in any sport has never been valued, and those values were emulated by other countries. Now, I don't know that this is an adequate explanation. Most of the women's teams are coached and trained by European men, after all. But it's certainly interesting. (And certainly problematic, since it's that masculine ethic of playing through the pain and self-destructive behavior that I've criticized again and again. And which, clearly, I value in spite of that.)

Friday, August 03, 2012

When mockery and/or satire becomes self-defeating

This meme has been circulated on Facebook over the past few weeks: 

I totally approve of the sentiment, which is to mock superstition, in general, and especially the kind of superstition that puts trust in - and gives credit to - celestial bodies for influencing events that they couldn't possibly influence. (In this respect, it is also a somewhat more veiled attack on astrology and theism.) It can be fun to poke fun at people for believing ridiculous things that defy explanation or imagination; it's even funnier to poke fun at them for believing in the power of something that is long-dead. Funny, snarky stuff.

There's a problem with the message itself, though. Three, actually.

The first, which occurred to me immediately and I've seen repeated widely, is that stars don't live for millions of years - they live for billions of years. If it only ("only") took millions of years for an individual star's light to reach us on Earth, and it's not obviously in its death throes, (which could still constitute millions of years) it's almost certain that the star is still there.

The second problem, which I had to look up to confirm, is that our eyes can't actually perceive stars that are millions of light years away. (Most of us can faintly see the Andromeda Galaxy, which is 2.5 million light years away, but only as a blur of light. Not as distinct stars.) The Milky Way Galaxy is, in fact, only (again, "only") about 100,000 light years in diameter. And our eyes? Someone with perfect eyesight will struggle to see a star in Cassiopeia that's 16k light years. (A more typical pair of eyes can only see stars that are about 5k light years away.)

The Andromeda Galaxy - all one trillion stars of it - is 2.5m light years away,
and looks about as bright as a satellite.

The third problem? Another more obvious one: when we wish upon stars, that "star" is typically of the shooting-star variety. Which isn't a star - it's a piece of space debris burning up in the atmosphere. So, yes, by the time you finish your wish that shooting star has been totally burned up. That part's right. But you're also seeing it in real-time. So, again, the joke doesn't work.
So, what we're left with is a little meme about how the superstitious are ignorant of astronomy... but it's only funny if its readers' are similarly ignorant of astronomy. (Irony!)

On Facebook, a friend argued that the factuality of the joke wasn't important, because he appreciated the sentiment. (ie. The comforting feeling of superiority generated by the comedy.) I probably couldn't disagree more - the sentiment is empty precisely because the joke is entirely untrue. And I'd imagine, in fact, that the sorts of people who believe in astrology would offer up the exact same argument in support of their beliefs - it doesn't matter if their superstitions are scientifically valid, because what matters is the security that they find in it. (ie. The comforting feeling of control over their lives that's generated by the predictions - or, rather, that's generated by the Forer Effect.) And if these aren't the exact same thing, then they're certainly similar enough so as to negate any claim that the person who laughs has to the intellectual high-ground.

There are plenty of ways to go about making fun of people who believe ridiculous and absurd things. Let's not go inventing new ways that just discredit us.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mocking the London Olympics' Opening Ceremonies

The Opening Ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics made all sorts of references to the children's literature that's been produced by British authors: Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and Harry Potter were all rather prominent. But the book - or series of books, rather - that seemed to dominate the show was never actually referred to by name.

Take the landscape that opens the show, which looks something like this. The center of the stadium is filled with green, rolling fields, featuring a giant hill in the background. Idyllic, pastoral. It's Shire-like, even:

But then, after a bit of a show and speech, (by Kenneth Branagh!) the green burns away, smoking towers rise from the ground, and weary, dirty laborers replace the cheerful farmers-in-repose. It's supposed to dramatize the "progress" of the industrial revolution...

...instead, it looks ominous, even somewhat apocalyptic. I'm thinking less of industry and more of the orcs plundering Isengard. And though you can't really see it in this image, (you'll see it in the one immediately below) they're forging a ring in the center of the pillars.

Do I need to say it? We're looking at the heart of Mount Doom. (You've probably caught on by now, too - the English classic that goes unnamed, probably not even consciously invoked, but nonetheless haunts the ceremony is The Lord of the Rings. Apt, too, when you think about how needlessly expensive and exploitative these kinds of events tend to be!)

But we're not done yet! Because the Olympic flame is eventually raised, and it looks a little something like this.

"The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat's, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing."

Oh, yes. I went there.

Seriously, though, there was something vaguely terrifying about the entire process. How anyone could read the transformation of that adorable countryside into so much machinery-scarred Earth and smoke as anything other than a horror story... yeah, that's just confusing.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

More backlash politics: fanboys and the "triumph" of Superheroes

I can't believe I missed the whole backlash against AO Scott in The New York Times, because he deigned to criticize The Avengers film, but it seems additionally relevant now - because of the controversy with hardcore gamers that I wrote about last week, but probably also because of what happened in Colorado.

Hawkeye, Captain American, and the Black Widow in Joss Whedon's Avengers.
Zade Rosenthal/Walt Disney Pictures.

Actually, Scott's snarky review was probably meaner to the film's fans that it was to the movie itself. Writes Scott,

this movie revels in the individuality of its mighty, mythical characters, pinpointing insecurities that are amplified by superhuman power and catching sparks that fly when big, rough-edged egos (and alter egos) collide. The best scenes are not the overblown, skull-assaulting action sequences — which add remarkably little that will be fresh or surprising to devotees of the Transformers franchise — but the moments in between, when the assembled heroes have the opportunity to brag, banter, flirt and bicker. 

So, there is a not-flattering comparison to Transformers, though this isn't as nasty as it might first seem - if Transformers did anything competently, if not creatively, it was show things exploding. But there is a certain nastiness in the review, and it's aimed squarely at the fans. For instance:

the true guiding spirit of their movie is Loki, who promises to set the human race free from freedom and who can be counted on for a big show wherever he goes. In Germany he compels a crowd to kneel before him in mute, terrified awe, and “The Avengers,” which recently opened there to huge box office returns, expects a similarly submissive audience here at home. The price of entertainment is obedience.

Yikes. It's not terribly surprising, then, that Scott was flamed over Twitter by fanboys with demands that he be fired. (Having not read them, I can't be certain whether these were people who were responding to ostensible insult of the film or the more real insult to themselves. If it's the former, that's an unfortunate irony, because it proves that Scott's joke, above, isn't just a joke.)

Anyway, I bring this up now, and call it newly relevant, because the insecurity that those fans appear to be speaking from is a lot like the insecurity of hardcore gamers. There's a reason, after all, that fans of Marvel comics, in particular, are called Marvel Zombies. (I doubt that Scott knew this. And, yet, he clearly knew it.)

Painting for the Marvel Zombies comic book, by Arthur Suydam.
Yes, the title is a joke. But everyone loves zombies, so it's win-win.

In the blog about hardcore gamers, I wrote that

every man is made to feel like they're lacking in some way. But not every man is conscious of that lack. Geeks aren't only conscious of it, but they're often reminded of it. And this is a problem for them because [the game] may be the only access that they have to a sense of masculine adequacy. To take that away, then, is to threaten their very sense of themselves as men.

To attack the Avengers film or Avengers fanboys, then, produces a similar effect. But it is also similarly problematic. Because, like most hardcore gamers, fanboys tend to be straight, middle-class white men who enjoy an incredible amount of privilege.

There's an additional layer to the comic book issue, though, one that was recently raised by Freddie deBoer. To pick from the very first line in deBoer's blog, over the past decade fanboys have learned that "our particular geeky obsessions no longer seemed special. Everyone knew about them." That's still not entirely true of gamer culture, I think. I'd wager that few people outside of the gaming community would recognize the N7 insignia that Commander Shepard wears if you slapped it on your coat (in fact, I'm not sure that they would know it has any significance at all); I'm fairly certain that a large minority or small majority of people under 40 would be familiar with Captain American's shield or the X-Men's X.

Because I'm filling this blog with quotes, I'll add another one, this time from Andrew O'Heir at Salon:

at what point is the triumph of comic-book culture sufficient? Those one-time comic-book pariahs are now the dominant force in pop-culture entertainment, and their works are deemed to be not just big but also relevant and important.

The hardcore gamers may feel as if they're under assault by hostile forces, but they remain the gatekeepers of their own online kingdom and firmly in control of their own culture. Not so, for the fanboys, who lost whatever control they once had (if they ever had it) long ago to interests in Hollywood and boardrooms, filled with people who want to diversify and grow the audience, not cater to the base. It's like the fans of the Avengers used to speak a secret language that only they understood, and now everyone and their dad uses it in casual conversation. You might call it "triumph"; one could also plausibly call it "devastating".

O'Heir concludes with the remark that "I think these fans are looking to the stars, for some sort of recognition or respect that simply doesn’t exist, for any of us." But I think that the critical misunderstanding is this - these fans aren't happy with success because they were never looking for and never wanted success. (Kurt Cobain, anyone?) They're defined by the things they appreciate that others never will, and so, in a sense, they're looking for a new defeat to rally around. (As evinced by the response to Scott.) Triumph will never be sufficient, and will never be particularly desirable, because it's difficult to feel special - and it's always been about feeling special, unique, and even superior - when everyone else loves and appreciates the same thing that you do.