Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Every Tuesday Is Fat Tuesday
Sorry to have failed to live up to the "daily" part of "Daily Aneurysm" this past week. I've been traveling again, plus I'm on deadline for another project. On top of that, today's my birthday (sort of--the actual date would be February 29 if this were one of those years), and I have to confess I'm not taking it especially well this year.

Although I can't deny that having it fall on Fat Tuesday is weirdly appropriate.

So anyway: Yesterday I was teaching a class at a Lutheran high school northeast of Madison. Generally, I like teaching at private, religious schools for the same reason parents like having their kids attend private schools: A lot of the trouble in the world that walks right through the front door of public schools can't seem to find the door in private schools. There are reasons for this, of course. If asked, parents and administrators would probably talk about the values that animate their institutions. Private, religious-school students are supposed to be getting the sort of values-based education secularized public schools can't provide, and as a result, they're more civilized, or something. But it's a class issue, too. People buy their way into private clubs of all sorts because private clubs keep the riff-raff out.

My experience in these schools is fairly limited. My teaching jobs generally consist of parachuting into a school for the day, teaching a daylong workshop to prepare kids for the ACT or SAT college entrance exams, and then finding the nearest brewpub in time for dinner. I visit a Catholic school here in Madison frequently, and I've been to a handful of other religious schools over the years. (Oh, but what might have been: After I got my teaching certificate in 1997, the only serious bite I got on a job was at a Catholic middle school, where I'd have been one of two male staff members on a staff of 40 teachers.) But I've seen enough to have some questions about what goes on.

One thing seems clear to me: Schools run by Catholics and Lutherans are a different breed of religious school than those run by fundies. Schools run by mainstream denominations aren't generally teaching out of books like America's Providential History or Precalculus for Christian Schools, books which vibrate with fear that a student might stop thinking about Jesus for one damn second now and then, and in that second, lose his soul. In fact, the only difference I can see between these mainstream-denomination religious schools and the public schools is the 15 minutes per day students spend attending chapel services. That, and they can probably perform overtly religious music in band and chorus. But what else do they do that's specific to religious schools alone? In the old days, I suppose, the nuns could whack misbehaving students with more elan than teachers can now. But what else? Are they weaving religious principles and religious language into lessons with more subtlety than the fundies do? I doubt it, but I don't know for sure. (As a candidate for the Catholic school teaching job, I was asked if I'd have a problem leading students in prayer. As I was not yet a stone atheist back then, I said "no," although I knew perfectly well if I ever tried it I'd be struck by lightning.) My guess is that lots of private, religious-school teachers are as thoroughly secularized as I am, because that's the kind of world we live in.

Is it small class sizes and low faculty-to-student ratios? Is it superior athletic programs? If it is, those practical concerns are getting short philosophical shrift in the mission statements that are supposed to encapsulate private schools' reason for being. Because examining the mission statements of some of these schools doesn't help all that much in learning precisely how these schools are supposed to be different, either. At Edgewood High School in Madison, which I visit frequently, their mission statement says:
Edgewood's purpose is to provide a values-based, college preparatory program emphasizing intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual development to a diverse student population. Edgewood's mission as a Christian community dedicated to academic excellence is to create an awareness of the dignity of life and to encourage social responsibility, commitment to service, and improvement of the quality of life through peace and justice.
It seems to me that as a goal for educating students, that's a fine one--but why it should be the exclusive province of religous schools, I don't know. Recognizing the dignity of life, having a sense of social responsibility and a commitment to service, and striving to improve of the quality of life through peace and justice are all things we'd like our kids to do instinctively. But none of those qualities necessarily require religious instruction to acquire--they can just as easily be reached through principles of humanism. Even the spiritual development part--if we acknowledge that one's spirit can be developed through appreciation for art, music, literature, and knowledge itself. And if all that's true, the public schools should be able to do it successfully, too--because they want to. Here's the Madison Metropolitan School District's mission statement:
The Mission Statement of the Madison Metropolitan School District, a community based educational partnership for children, is to assure academic success for every student in its elementary and secondary programs based on respect for the dignity of others, an appreciation of our diverse, democratic society, and the mastery of communication, technological, scientific, rational, creative and social skills.
A little more outcome-based than Edgewood's mission statement perhaps, less metaphysical, doesn't have as much music in it, but substantively, it's very similar.

So: Keeping in mind the possibility that I'm an idiot who's missing something right in front of my nose, can you help a brother out? If you were a private school kid back in the day--or, even better, if you're a parent with kids in private school now--how is your private, religious-school education substantively different from what they're getting in public schools? What separates it from your public schools, and makes it worth the money for your kids to attend? I'd really like to know.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Ain't That a Shame
Reading the main page of World Net Daily is like walking down the midway at some bizarre, slightly shady carnival on the outskirts of Wingnuttia. Many of the links on the page are sprinkled with exclamation points that give them all the subtlety of a pitchman's spiel: "Step right up, folks, and find out how liberals have been misleading you!" And like any good pitchman, once they've got your attention, they reach for your wallet. "You need to know the truth, and we'll tell you what it is for just $39.95!" The distinction between links to actual stories and to advertisements is, at best, hazy. So if you're a wingnut, you can read news stories to reinforce your worldview, and then buy products that reinforce the reinforcement. (I have been able to find nothing remotely like this on liberal news and commentary sites--the ubiquitous blogads found on liberal sites like Kos, Atrios, and others are clearly not the same thing.)

So anyway--buried a long way down the page this weekend is the following story: "Who's missing from Rock Hall of Fame? Effort initiated to induct pop pioneer Pat Boone". The story goes on to explain that Pat is as deserving of honor by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, or any other performers of his era, and reports on an effort by legendary radio programmer John Rook to petition the Hall to induct Boone. The WND article tries to debunk the idea that Pat is undeserving because many of his major hits were versions of R&B hits recorded by other people first. And, because this is World Net Daily, we are eventually told the main reason why Pat is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: It's because he's a conservative Christian.

Yes, Boone recorded several early rock songs (not as many as WND would have you believe, however), and yes, they sold a lot of copies. But "copy" is actually the operative word here. Boone got the chance to make his mark on music history thanks to a repeat of a familiar cultural phenomenon. It started not long after the Civil War, although it wasn't until the Jazz Age that it became commonplace. A black cultural product--gospel in the post-Civil War era, jazz in the first third of the 20th century, early rock and R&B in the 1950s, or rap in the 1980s--is viewed as exotic by white kids, and as a threat by white parents, who fear its influence on their kids' precious bodily fluids. Eventually, those threatening forms are co-opted by whites, and in the process of reconfiguration into "acceptability," the authenticity and/or edges of the original product are sanded off. The case of 50s R&B is textbook. Boone wasn't the only performer who did it during the 1950s, but he's the most famous example of someone whose career was made by it. Tellingly enough, he didn't go back to it once he'd established himself. It wasn't like he covered the Beatles in 1963.

(Boone's contention that his cover versions were helpful to black artists represents an interesting interpretation of history. I don't doubt that some of those artists feel warmly toward Pat for exposing their songs to a wide audience, but don't be confused into thinking that the exposure necessarily translated into money. In the 1950s, early R&B songwriters frequently signed, or were tricked into signing, publishing contracts that robbed them of the royalties that are paid when songs are recorded. I'm glad Fats Domino made some money, but he may be the exception that proves the rule--many other songwriters didn't make a dime from some extremely popular cover versions.)

But if you listen to Boone's recordings, especially to the rock classics World Net Daily cites as evidence of his fitness for induction into the Rock Hall, you'll hear quite clearly why he doesn't belong. His versions of "Ain't That a Shame," "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," and "I Almost Lost My Mind" are pallid copies of the originals, aping the energy but completely missing the spirit. He sings like he's got the vocal equivalent of latex gloves on to keep from being contaminated by that spirit. This makes his comparison of his cover versions with those by Elvis and the Beatles especially silly, because in most cases, the love and respect Elvis and the Beatles have for the songs they covered is audible--they worked as hard to replicate the spirit of the originals as they did to remember the words. Boone's later hits, like "April Love" and "Friendly Persuasion" are pure mom-and-pop pop. Even a gospel record like "A Wonderful Time Up There," which a Bible believer like Boone should be able to sing from a place close to his true soul, lacks any feeling of soul at all.

I've written before (at my other blog, The Hits Just Keep On Comin') that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should not be exclusively for performers whose body of work stands up to serious critical examination. I've argued that performers whose work is considered disposable by many critics, such as Tommy James and Three Dog Night, are deserving of induction, too. Their best recordings were filled with a spirit of fun that typifies rock and roll's heart, they were made at a high level of craft, and they meant a great deal to the people who bought them at the time. And so I'm sympathetic to John Rook, at least, because Pat Boone clearly meant a lot to him in the late 1950s. But spirit and heart are what matters most, and Pat Boone's 50s recordings demonstrate clearly that he hasn't got either one in sufficient quantity to be immortalized alongside those who do.

His religion's got nothing to do with it. And anyway, fathering the woman who inflicted "You Light Up My Life" on an unsuspecting world is a much greater offense than being religious.

Quote of the Day: "And it’s sad that the actor that played Barney Fife is gone, while the closest living version of Barney Fife still plays 'President' Dress Up in the Oval Office."--KingCranky, quoted at Pandagon.

(A similar version of this post appears at The Hits Just Keep On Comin'.)

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Embracing Idiocy
Okay, maybe you're really, really smart the rest of the time, but if you make a habit of watching American Idol, then for at least one hour per week you're gleefully pursuing a self-inflicted lobotomy. If you discuss it at work the next day, then that's another hour or so with the ice pick jammed up your nostril. Add to that any time you spend anticipating some particular victim's demise at Simon's manicured hands. Heck, while you're at it you might as well permanently halve your IQ each time you speak Clay Aiken's name aloud.

To be honest, the same goes for any "reality" show, but Idol is clearly the worst offender. It is both cause and symptom of the terrible mental plague afflicting America. Try this experiment: on Monday, ask five of your coworkers to name four current Idol contestants. Then ask them to name four contestants from previous seasons.

Then ask them to name both of your state's current Senators and at least two Representatives.

My office is full of people who are demonstrably quite intelligent, and all of them college graduates. Our line of work, though hardly brain surgery, demands precise handling of very fluid financial data, with little or no margin for error. My coworkers are highly skilled at creating innovative solutions to elaborate and unforeseeable problems. Additionally, at least several of them have encyclopedic knowledge of baseball stats dating back decades or more, so it's apparent that they can handle detailed minutiae.

But ask them the name of the current House Speaker or which state just outlawed abortion, and you'll be met with a look so blank that you'll think you're addressing the President. Worse, you'll be regarded as somewhat freakish because you express any interest in politics beyond what can be gleaned from AM Talk Radio.

I marvel at the lengths to which people will go to sedate themselves without even resorting to pharmacology. My dazzling prose notwithstanding, I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but even I manage to be minimally informed without Herculean effort.

If your coworkers are still around at this point, ask them to name the last book they read. Don't get me wrong--I'm glad that J.K. Rowling has achieved success, and it's great that she's inspired millions of adults to read, but I'd love to have a literary discussion that doesn't begin with the disclaimer "It's really not a children's book."

Professional journalism has been replaced by professional opinion, the bought-and-paid-for nature of which is so redundantly obvious that you should skip to the end of this sentence right now. But the inevitable result is that many people have entirely forgotten how to form their own opinions. Instead, they regurgitate what they think are facts and which they've absorbed unquestioningly from very questionable sources. If they do offer an opinion, it will generally involve who should have been voted off the island, or who should hook up with whom on next week's Grey's Anatomy.

Shattered foreign policy, bottomless deficits, and wholesale environmental devastation notwithstanding, Dubya's most enduring legacy may be his tireless and, to date, nearly successful campaign to stamp out intelligence and education. His hatred of coherent discourse has been obvious for the entirety of his term, and his concerted decimation of government-funded science makes it equally clear that facts are subordinate to personal preference and political expediency. With our President to guide them into a blissfully flatlined EEG, who can blame the viewers who live for this week's serving of televised anesthetic?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Willful Stupidity Is Officially Here
I'm not officially here. I'm on hiatus. This is not an official blog post. Repeat, this is not an official blog post. It can't be, because I'm not officially here.

Just yesterday I was reading something--I forget what; probably somebody else's blog--and took note of a very good line: "Willful stupidity is a crime." I thought of it this morning reading an article at Alternet, an excerpt from the book How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Sex, Virtue, and the Way We Live Now, by Cristina Page. It's a stunning catalog of the ways in which pro-lifers embrace willful stupidity, tie themselves into self-justifying logical knots over biology to further the cause of Jesus, and do real, quantifiable damage to children. After it's done making you sick, it will probably make you angry.

It may be too late to do anything about the eventual demise of Roe v. Wade. (Anybody who thinks the Supremes won't uphold the constitutionality of D&X bans ("partial birth," as the wingnuts call it) now that Strip-Search Sammy is on the bench, raise your hand.) However, the article is worth your time anyhow, if only to help you understand the depth of the stupidity-induced criminality assaulting us every day. Read it if you have a kid--or a school board.

Now: since I'm not officially here, I can't officially leave. Which is a bit of a conundrum, yes?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

"Because I Said So"
King George was adamant this afternoon that the deal turning over security operations for six major American ports to a company based in the United Arab Emirates is going through, and that if Congress passes a bill stopping it, he'll veto it.

There are several surprising aspects to this development:

1. The strongly bipartisan nature of the collective WTF that emerged when this deal was announced. As eminent a Bush-humper as Bill Frist announced today he was prepared to introduce a bill that would hold up approval of the deal. (This may be the first time Frist and Hillary Clinton have agreed on anything, including what to order for lunch.)

2. That Bush threatened to veto any bill interfering with the deal. He said something half-coherent about people holding a Middle Eastern company to different standards than a "Great British" company, but his vehemence about this deal can't be for reasons of simple fairness alone. Bush has never vetoed anything in five years--it's odd that this would be the thing on which he's most willing to go to the mat. Every investigative reporter in the country ought to commence with the digging--there's clearly more to this deal than meets the eye. One wonders what the government of the UAE got in exchange for Bush's approval of this deal, or who stands to make some phenomenal amount of money on it.

3. That Bush deigned to threaten a veto at all. If he's got the unlimited powers he claims to have, he could declare it a fait accompli, and have Bill Frist beheaded for good measure.

When the first few Repugs started objecting to the deal, I was reminded of the bipartisan disapproval of the warrantless wiretaps when that story broke just before Christmas--and how now, two months later, arms have been twisted and the wavering Repugs have come to Jesus. The difference here is that it's Repug governors and high-profile wingnuts who are making some of the loudest objections this time. Does any of that sound familiar? So the question has to be: Is this deal going through come hell or high water, as King George claims, or is it Harriet Miers all over again?

Take it up in the comments, because I'm going on hiatus for a few days. If Tom Herbst has anything interesting on his mind, there will be new posts here--otherwise I don't expect to be back doing business at this stand until Sunday or Monday, although there may be a new post or two at The Hits Just Keep On Comin'.

Before I hit the highway, here's the biggest laugh I've had in days. Enjoy.

Monday, February 20, 2006

In Which I Surrender Completely to Pessimism, and Then Go Out for a Tsingtao
How many ways are we completely screwed? Well, today, at least three ways that we know of. First off, John Aravosis at AMERICABlog observes that with the happy compliance of the Republican majority in Congress, America will soon declare that the guys who wrote the Constitution got it wrong, and that George W. Bush has it right, and for that reason we should give him the unchallenged and unchallengeable authority to do whatever he feels is necessary, safe in the knowledge that he would never, ever abuse that power.

So that's one. But, you say, surrender not to pessimism, jb, we'll make it all right at the next election, oh yes we will. Well, before I can discuss the second way we're screwed, here's some backstory: You may have heard that Paul Hackett, the Iraq vet from Ohio who very nearly squeaked out a seat in the House last summer, dropped out of the race for the Democratic nom for the Senate seat currently held by Repug Mike DeWine. Dropped out, but not voluntarily--the national Democratic establishment chose to support current Congressman Sherrod Brown in the race, leaving Hackett up the creek without a paddle. So he huffily stomped out of public life.

I haven't followed this too closely, but from what I've read, Hackett wasn't exactly "betrayed" by the establishment--he was behind 2-1 according to his own polling, and Sherrod Brown has an organization in place, which Hackett does not. The choice of the national party to support Brown was pretty much SOP--and it's not like Brown is a Lieberman Democrat, or has no chance to take DeWine. But many people, some working for Hackett on the inside and many supporting him on the outside, are so personally hurt by this that they'd prefer DeWine win the election. It's the 2006 equivalent of the people from the Dean and Kucinich camps who swore they wouldn't support John Kerry, and who sulked off into apathy. So today comes news that a few of Hackett's staffers have helpfully released all of the opposition research they'd done on Brown so the Republicans can use it.

Shorter version: "I'm gonna hold my breath until I turn blue and die, and then you'll be sorry."

This prompted a post from Atrios, who has identified the second way in which we are screwed: If there's this much hysterical infighting over a Senate primary in Ohio, imagine what will happen when the 2008 presidential race rolls around. Democrats, always eager to form circular firing squads, will do a double-plus-ultra version of what we traditionally do--deliver into the general election campaign a candidate so badly wounded by the nomination fight that he or she is at a disadvantage against a united Republican Party.

Somebody said to me last year that there's no way we can lose the White House in 2008. Wrong. We can. If I had to bet right now, I'd say we will.

Let's leave aside the question, for the moment, of how united the Repugs will be in finding a successor to King George--if King George goes voluntarily in 2008. You heard it here first: If Republicans retain control of both houses of Congress in November, the first order of business for the new Congress will be to take up the resolution, introduced last summer, repealing the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two terms. (This would be How We Are Screwed, Reason 2B.) The resolution has been co-sponsored by at least two Democrats, who, in typical Democrat fashion, cite deeply philosophical reasons for repeal, ignoring entirely the grave practical threat it presents by making Bush eligible to be president for life.

The grave practical threat is, primarily, that we'll see more and more decisions like the following, which is the third way in which we are screwed. This particular way in which we are screwed, however, is several quanta above the ways that I have written about so far. This one can only be described as bugfuck insane, and sufficiently bugfuck insane to un-bugfuck anything I've ever characterized as bugfuck insane hitherto: the news late last week that we're handing security operations for six American ports to a Middle Eastern company. How many ways is this crazy? How can a country that's hacked off the entire Middle East, governed by people who generically hate nearly everybody who lives in the Middle East except for the Israelis and a few dozen handpicked Iraqi collaborators, possibly consider putting the safety of these places and the people and goods that pass through them, into the hands of a company based in the Middle East? "We make sure there are assurances in place, in general, sufficient to satisfy us that the deal is appropriate from a national security standpoint," says Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff. But Homeland Security isn't going to oversee the hiring of every single rent-a-cop and stevedore, and the fact is they'll have no idea about or control over who the security company is hiring. But don't worry, because Chertoff says you don't have to.

It's one thing for a government to screw up the big stuff. The big stuff is hard. But these people consistently, continually, repeatedly, screw up the little things, too. They screw up things that a random dude picked off the street could get right. Over and over again, in instance after instance.

Screwed, screwed, screwed. It's no longer a question of whether we're finished, it's a question of when. Our grandchildren will speak Chinese.

The New Soviets
(Note: Yeah, I know, it's another damn post about the Winter Olympics. Go read somebody else's blog if you're not interested.)

Yesterday morning I didn't have anything else to do, so I settled in to watch the U.S. men's hockey team play at the Olympics. (Hockey is one of the rare events NBC is showing live, plus many of the games are being called by Mike Emrick, widely recognized as the best in his field.) Then I watched as the U.S. team, made up entirely of NHL professionals, lost 2-1 to Sweden, a team with only a handful of NHL professionals. The U.S. has also lost to Slovakia, with a similarly small handful of pros, and has tied Latvia, which has only two. The only team the Americans have beaten is Kazakhstan, which has one NHLer, and would be seeded last in the tournament if the host country, Italy, wasn't permitted to field a team. Most of the non-NHL players on the men's rosters are pros, too, but in European leagues far less fearsome than the NHL. So the Americans, despite demonstrably superior talent at every position, are getting beaten by teams who aren't as good. Team USA is most likely going to make it to the medal round anyway--Olympic hockey's "regular season" is as forgiving of the halt and the lame as the NHL's regular season--but it's hard to imagine them suddenly becoming competitive when all the money is on the table.

The American team never practiced together before playing their first game, and that's certainly got a lot to do with their performance, although it hasn't bothered the all-NHL Canadian team quite as much. But when you watch Team USA on the ice, you see something else. The broadcasters say that they see the players working hard, and the players themselves say they're working hard--but there's a look in their eyes that says, "Don't these guys know who we are?" They expect to win just by showing up--and the fact that they don't is frustrating and confusing to them.

Contrast that to the American women, who will play for a bronze medal today after losing to Sweden in the semifinals on Friday. I saw the overtime period of that game, and it was everything you want in a big game, quite literally 10 minutes of hell for the Swedes, played almost entirely in their end of the ice, with both teams going all out to win. The American women lost in a shootout, however, and you could see how much it hurt. Unlike the NHL pros, the American women aren't going home to the second half of their pro schedules and to more money than they can spend in a lifetime. This is what they train for, play for, live for. The team is made up of top college players (including one, Molly Engstrom, from the Wisconsin Badgers), and several of the players have been together on the national team for several years. When you lose what is, at least for right now, your life's work, it feels far worse than just losing a game. When the American men crash out of the medal round, their pride will be briefly wounded, but the pain will be forgotten by the time they get on the bus to leave the rink.

NBC's broadcast yesterday opened with a montage of Olympic hockey moments, and those moments prominently featured the 1980 American team, made up entirely of college players, who famously beat the Soviets. But it occurs to me that in these Olympics, the big bad monolithic superpower everyone wants to beat is the United States. Especially in hockey, but also in other sports. You think the akavit wasn't flowing in Latvia after they tied us? You think people in Europe didn't celebrate when Lindsey Jacobellis hot-dogged her way out of a gold medal in snowcross the other night, or every time Bode Miller crashes? We sit over here in our happy little bubble with no idea of how the rest of the world sees us, in sports and in myriad other ways--so we don't know. But just because we don't know it doesn't mean it isn't real.

(Slightly edited to fix dumb stuff.)

Friday, February 17, 2006

Shot Rock at the Bonspiel
Sports talk radio has been buzzing today over comments made by Bryant Gumbel on HBO's Real Sports the other night.
Finally, tonight, the Winter Games. Count me among those who don't like them and won't watch them ... Because they're so trying, maybe over the next three weeks we should all try too. Like, try not to be incredulous when someone attempts to link these games to those of the ancient Greeks who never heard of skating or skiing. So try not to laugh when someone says these are the world's greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention. Try not to point out that something's not really a sport if a pseudo-athlete waits in what's called a kiss-and-cry area, while some panel of subjective judges decides who won ... So if only to hasten the arrival of the day they're done, when we can move on to March Madness -- for God's sake, let the games begin.
Conservatives are going predictably apeshit over two things--first, claiming that Gumbel said Republicans are racists; and two, squawking that the same liberals who excoriated Rush Limbaugh for his comments about black quarterbacks a few years back are silent on Gumbel. The former is typical conservative word-twisting and the latter is typical conservative victimhood, and as such, both are worthless.

More puzzling to me is the claim that Winter Olympians can't be the world's greatest athletes if black athletes don't participate. If that's true, it's only as a matter of semantics. There are few black athletes in these Olympics because there are few black athletes in Norway, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and other places that dominate the Winter Games; there are few black athletes in the sports dominated by the United States, such as snowboarding, figure skating, and hockey. Gumbel's remark is a little like saying the national surfing championship can't really crown a national champion if nobody is entered from Nebraska.

The Mrs. and I have been watching the Olympics, albeit selectively. Our favorite event is curling. CNBC has been showing it every day, and it's replaced Seinfeld reruns on my late-afternoon viewing schedule. It occurs to me that curling probably offends Gumbel's sensibilities, because it's as far removed from the ancient Greek ideal as any Olympic sport you can imagine. Too bad he's not watching, because he's missing something you can get hooked on.

Curling is rather like chess on ice, with brooms and 40-pound rocks, and a touch of ballet tossed in. It looks easy, but it isn't--and I know, because The Mrs. and I visited our local curling club after the 2002 Olympics and could barely stand up on the ice, let alone do anything with the rocks. It's being described on TV by two Canadian broadcasters, Don Chevrier and Don Duguid, who make no concession to the fact that 99 percent of their viewers know little or nothing about the sport. They've been broadcasting curling for 30 years, and they describe what's happening without overexplaining it, which, counterintuitively enough, makes it easier to pick up both the rules and the nuances.

The most compelling thing about curling is that the curlers are as average as the people sitting on the couch watching them, if not more so. The American women's team is anchored by a pair of sisters, Cassie and Jamie Johnson, who look like people who would ring up your groceries or cut your hair. Another member of the American team, Maureen Brunt, from just up the road in Portage, Wisconsin, you'd never pick out of a crowd as a world-class athlete. In her form-fitting curling outfit, she's chunky. But she's an Olympian, too, every bit as accomplished as Sacha Cohen or Bode Miller. The American men's team is captained by a guy named Pete Fenson, who looks like the sort of guy who would run a small-town pizza restaurant--which he does. At the world-class level, sport is a small world. Curling is among the smallest: Half the American team members are from Bemidji, Minnesota. The American men's coach is Fenson's father.

Are these athletes any less worthy of recognition as the world's best because they aren't professionals, don't have endorsement deals, haven't spent their childhoods pampered and preparing for their Olympic moment--or aren't on a big-enough stage? In the end, their stories and their struggles are a lot more interesting than those of figure-skating divas or hockey professionals on holiday.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Stormy Weather
Big snowstorm up here today. Most of the schools in the area are closed--even the Madison public schools, for the first time in five years. As The Mrs. and I watched the closings scroll by on TV this morning, I remembered how it was when I was a kid--how it felt to go to bed on a night when a snowstorm was on its way, and then to turn on our local radio station at home and hear those magic words, "Monroe public schools will be closed today." What I didn't realize until I was student-teaching is that teachers root for snow days just as hard as students do--the buzz of expectation when snow was forecast was just as loud in the teacher's lounge as it was in the halls.

When I was student teaching (nine years ago now), I didn't spend a great deal of time in the teacher's lounge, although I occasionally had lunch or killed a free period there. It didn't require spending a long time there to see that just like the students, teachers formed cliques and instituted a social pecking order of their own. People were sized up and cut down--not just other teachers, but students as well. (I was ready for just about anything when student teaching, except for teachers expressing strongly negative personal opinions about individual students, albeit behind closed doors. That surprised me, although in retrospect, I don't know why it should have.) In many respects, the teacher's lounge was just like any other workplace--depending on the circumstances, the staff banded together against the customers, against the management, and occasionally against one another. You learned pretty quickly who you could talk to and who you couldn't, who'd open up to the new guy and who wouldn't. Life in the teacher's lounge was, in some ways, an adult version of the social dramas being played out by the students in the hallways.

Just like life everywhere else.

Recommended Reading: Pam Spaulding at Pandagon observes that Democratic leaders, including Howard Dean, seem bent on downplaying any connection between the party and the issue of gay and lesbian civil rights in the November elections, in hopes of limiting the conservative shitstorm that would otherwise ensue. Hey, here's a news flash: There's going to be a conservative shitstorm anyway, no matter what. Better to stand out in it believing in something--especially something likely to attract young voters, who are the most likely to sit the election out--than to stand out in it with nothing. In Wisconsin, it's especially disturbing to see Democrats running away from gays and lesbians, given that we'll be voting on a same-sex-marriage-banning amendment to the state constitution in November. The referendum has been timed precisely by the state's Repug leadership to drive the wingnuts to the polls when the governorship is on the ballot, and why not? A similar strategy worked in state after state during the 2004 cycle: Amendments got passed, Repugs got elected. And life got uglier in lots of places.

I haven't linked to Wiley Miller's comic strip Non Sequitur in a while. (Closed circuit to Wiley: enough with Danae, already--she isn't funny anymore.) Today's is great, though.

And finally, why should the people who get the medals at the Winter Olympics get all the glory? DFL is a website dedicated to those who finish last.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen, Your Republican Moderates
It's been one of the basic tenets of this blog from the beginning that people who call themselves "independents" or "moderates" or "middle-of-the-roaders," far from being rugged, principled individualists who consider every issue on its merits and vote according to some personal standard of correctness, are actually muddle-headed nitwits who can't see the forest of American politics for the trees of individual issues. Short version: There's a war going on. Pick a side. Don't stand in the crossfire because you'll only be in the way, and you can't do any good there anyhow.

Today, two Republican moderates are in the spotlight--Olympia Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Both are members of the Senate committee that held hearings into the warrantless wiretaps earlier this month. Both of them came out strongly against the wiretaps when the program was first revealed last December. But now, Snowe is ready to roll over and vote against a full-scale Congressional investigation of the program. Likewise, Hagel has said he would support a bill to be proposed by Ohio's Mike DeWine, to make the wiretaps legal.

We've heard this song before. So-called Repug "moderates" make pious noises in the direction of independence, in the direction of statesmanship--which can be defined, in our modern era, as acting for the good of the country rather than the good of the party--but they only do it when there are no political consequences involved. Later, when all the money is on the table and it's time to show their cards, they throw in with the administration. They do it every damn time. The vote is tomorrow, but you can bet your grandma's dentures that there will be no investigation, by a party-line vote of 8-7.

Now, you may be thinking that I've contradicted myself here. At least Snowe and Hagel know what side they're on. But my problem with Snowe and Hagel is that they don't seem to know what side they're on--and neither do we, watching them, although there's plenty of evidence for what they really are. They call themselves moderates, they think of themselves as mavericks, and they're admired for it by a lot of people on our side of the aisle. And so, on an issue like the warrantless wiretaps, where the evidence of presidential wrongdoing is clear, we find ourselves thinking/believing/hoping that these "moderates" will vote not by party but on principle. But they rarely do. In the end, they're as reliably Republican as Santorum, Frist, Coburn, and the rest of their merry band

Remember what the colorful Texan progressive Jim Hightower said: "There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos." For Snowe and Hagel, being in the middle of the road is not so much a sign of principle as it is a sign of confusion. In this case, it sure ain't statesmanship.

Shameless Plug: Over at the Hits Just Keep On Comin', our first-ever podcast is up.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Still Angry After All These Years
There's bent thinking from both sides of the aisle today.

From the right: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia thinks you're an idiot if you believe in "the living Constitution." It is not, said Scalia disdainfully, a document designed to flex with the changes that the Founders knew history would bring to their country long after they were dead. Nope, the Constitution is only a legal document that says some things and doesn't say some others, and that means nobody's got the right to "interpret" it at all, but only to apply what it says.

A few years back, I went back to school and got my teaching certificate in, among other things, civics, so if you don't mind, I'd like to share a little technical educational jargon with you. In the civics-teacher business, we call Scalia's ideas about the Constitution "bullshit." Every civics teacher worth his or her salt teaches "the living Constitution." It's one of those things that's plainly true on its face, based on what we know of the Founders' intentions. Scalia's view is that of the people who opposed ratification of the Constitution back in the day--in other words, of the people who lost the historical argument. And in the brief AP story on the speech in which Scalia made his statement (linked above) you can hear the petulant, pissed-off tone of a loser who's been itching to take revenge on the winners for, oh, about 217 years.

From the left: A contributor at Daily Kos thinks the Cheney hunting-accident story could be the liberal version of conserative memes like "Al Gore invented the Internet" and "John Kerry voted for the Iraq War before he voted against it" as a way to belittle the Bush/Cheney administration. Fine idea, as far as it goes, until the contributor requires nine sentences to explain it. That's not a meme, that's an extended metaphor rich with nuance, and we all know how well the American people do nuance. While I agree that the shooting is indeed a lovely metaphor for the violence and duplicity of the Bush gang, I also think the White House and the mainstream media have already successfully framed it so that it will do practically no political damage to the administration. The White House itself is making jokes about it; the big story today, at least before the victim's condition got worse, was about the late-night comics' jokes about it. The whole thing is essentially being treated as a lark, and larks are not the stuff with which administrations are brought low. (Unless they're Republican larks that involve blowjobs.)

Of course, if the victim dies, all bets are off. This afternoon's stories about the victim's worsening condition seem ridiculously incomplete--Harry Whittington had a mild heart attack when birdshot got into his heart? I'm not a doctor, but I'm pretty sure birdshot in your heart can't be good. Saying he had a heart attack makes it sound like the attack happened independent of the shooting--which it clearly did not--and if it happened independent of the shooting, then Cheney is absolved from responsibility--which he clearly is not.

Feel the Love: Over the weekend, we passed the 20,000-hits mark on this blog. Not a lot by blogosphere standards, but gratifying to me, at least. So for that, and because it's Valentine's Day too, here's your gift: the Calvin and Hobbes Searchable Database. Type in a word, get strips that contain that word. Hours of fun.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Never as Good as the First Time
When you work at home like I do, terms like "Monday" and "Friday" are less redolent with meaning than they are in the corporate world. I don't know what's happening where you are, but in my world, it's fairly quiet today. That's because I know Dick Cheney and his shotgun are nowhere nearby, and even if they were nearby, I wouldn't know unless he shot somebody else, and maybe not even then. So here are a few thoughts and things that have surfaced on this sleepy, birdshot-free afternoon:

Michael Brown Has Left the Building, but His Soul Is Marching On. The Google ads, on the right side of this page, are generated automatically, which leads to some strange stuff now and then. For example, one that came up this morning from Floodsmart.gov, a FEMA agency, said, "Don't be a victim of the next big storm. Learn more now." So far, so good--except for the headline: "Wisconsin Hurricanes." Yeah, helluva problem up here.

"He Really Nailed That One!" After just one night of watching the Winter Olympics, I think I've already seen enough snowboarding. If you've seen one of the 70s-haired verbally challenged twentysomething athletes do whatever it is they do, you've seen them all. The only thing more repetitive may be the commentary that accompanies it, which is 50 percent caffeinated enthusiasm and 50 percent uncritical fawning. Given the likelihood that snowboarding and similar events are among the few events likely to attract TV viewers under the age of 40 (and one of the few Americans will dominate), we'll likely be enduring them every night for the next two weeks, and I say the hell with it.

Frozen Gold. The Mrs. and I had suspected, ever since it was announced last summer, that Green Bay's Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic would be something special--college hockey, which is far superior to the pro variety, on an outdoor rink at Lambeau Field, home of the Packers. Once we got there Saturday, it was a great time, from the pregame tailgate to the reenactment of the Badger football "Jump Around" tradition to the Badger players doing a Lambeau Leap into the student section after the 4-2 win over Ohio State. About 48 hours later, it's turning into one of those memories I'll cherish fondly for the rest of my natural life. They might do it again sometime at Lambeau, and if they do, The Mrs. and I will be there--but it won't ever be as good as the first time.

Aliens in My Back Seat. The Mrs. and I, who are childless, took our nephew and his friend, both age 13, to the hockey game with us on Saturday. It was OK, really--all we heard from the back seat was the buzz beneath their headphones from the Korn and Slipknot CDs they traded back and forth. When they weren't cranking music, they'd talk to one another in a normal tone of voice except when the subject was girls, when they would drop to a conspiratorial whisper. They'd load up on candy bars whenever we stopped along the way. On the way home, they didn't inform me that they'd run out of money for dinner until we were at the counter and ready to order. The only time they exasperated me was while playing grabass at dinner, which caused me to remark to my nephew, "This is why you don't have any cousins." They may seem like an alien species from time to time, but in most of the significant ways, 13-year-olds are not a lot different now than they were when I was 13--although I am sure our music was better.

Recommended Reading: Yesterday, Glenn Greenwald at Unclaimed Territory put up a post on the Bush cult of personality that might be the Post of the Year, or the Century, or the Millennium. It's that good. (The comments from Kos on Greenwald's post are worth reading as well.) Also, if you're having trouble believing that our country could put up with a stolen election, or happily embrace torture, or impeach a president for a blowjob but not for a systematic campaign of lying that would make Tommy Flanagan blush, you ain't seen nothin' yet: Barry Manilow has the number-one album in the country this week. It's a miracle.

Like a Virgin
From my e-mail, I understand that some readers of this bilge are waiting breathlessly for me to snark about Dick Cheney's hunting weekend. I'm sure there must be a world of funny jokes to be made about it, but I can't get the bat off my shoulder. A lot of websites are discussing the fact that the White House decided not to tell anyone about it, but that's the least newsworthy event since the sunrise. Of course they didn't.

The most interesting comment I've seen about the shooting came over at Pharyngula (a blog fast moving up on my list of must-reads), noting that Cheney favors the sort of hunting where you go onto a preserve and shoot animals that have been raised for the express purpose of being killed by hunters--which a lot of hunters consider unethical. I'm not opposed to hunting, but I used to tease a hunter friend of mine by saying that I would consider deer hunting a sport when they armed the deer. He responded that the deer have countless advantages over the hunter--speed, stealth, sense of smell, and knowing the territory among them--and so the contest is actually a fairly even match. If that's true, hunting can indeed be considered a sport. However:
Blowing away a horde of pen-raised animals, released in front of you to scurry into your gunsights, is not a sport. It's disgusting bloody-mindedness, a lazy, cowardly, vicious sort of abuse.

They say that torturing and killing helpless animals is one of the signs of a sadistic sociopath. Somehow, it's fitting that our vice-president is the kind of guy who takes glee in unfeeling butchery.
If the shoe fits, yes.

Recommended Reading:
If you have time to read only read one blog per day, skip this crappy one and read Pandagon instead. On some days, it's the best blog there is. Amanda Marcotte's feminist analysis of the TV show Bewitched is the kind of thing I wish I was smart enough to think of; her post this morning on how conservative men hate feminism because it cuts down their supply of nubile, compliant virgins is more of the same. So go read already.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Trial of the Generations
We've talked a lot here about the Sterling Hall bombing at the University of Wisconsin in 1970 (most recently here)--and it's back in the news again today. Students across Wisconsin will participate in Mock Trial 2006 at 14 courhouses statewide tomorrow, and the subject of this year's trial is whether lead conspirator Karl Armstrong should be pardoned for the bombing.

As you might have guessed, the subject is a bit controversial. Armstrong hasn't asked for a pardon, and some people outside of Madison believe the topic is another way of pushing Madison liberalism on the rest of the state. (Despite our state's progressive reputation, Madison liberals are often greeted in the hinterlands with the same warm welcome normally reserved for crack whores.) But according to Wisconsin State Journal columnist Susan Lampert Smith, the mock trial students--many of whom would be considered among their schools' academic elite--don't relate to the Vietnam Era at all. So it seems unlikely to me that they'd be able, or interested, in applying any of its lessons to the world in which they live.

(That's what conservatives are afraid of--that liberalism will make people learn and apply the lessons of history instead of letting them continue along in the blissful ignorance that comes with belief that 9/11 changed everything, and that the past is past.)

Vietnam to today's kids is like ancient history. World War II was closer to the kids of 1970 than the high protest days of the 60s are to the kids of today. And unlike their parents, many of whom see ambiguity in Armstrong's actions, kids consider the fact that Armstrong's bomb killed a researcher evidence that his case is an open-and-shut case of wrongdoing, period. And after trying to educate the students on the passions of the time, one teacher says he's pretty sure they still don't get it.

Smith includes one quote in her story that's especially important to note. One of the adult participants in the mock trial program remarked that the students found the idea of a military draft utterly foreign and quite unbelievable, "They were shocked, shocked at the draft. You should have seen the look on their faces: 'You mean they could make you go to war?'"

After the mock trial is over, kids, before you strap your iPod back on and start IMing your friends, you might want to find Iran on a map.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Getting Closer to the Truth
It's one of the standard riffs on this blog that toxic religion represents a grave threat not just to the United States, but to post-Enlightenment civilization everywhere. We're seeing its effects in the cartoon protests going on in the Islamic world, and we're living it here in the United States as theocrats move to increase their political power from school boards to the Capitol. And as long as we give religion a privileged status, by putting it in a place where we ask no questions and offer no criticism, we can't deal effectively with the fanatics, theirs and ours.

Daniel Dennett is a philosopher who's written a book called Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and he's interviewed in Salon. The goal of the book is to examine where religious belief comes from, but only in terms of what can be proven by the scientific method. Dennett says he doesn't want to undermine faith any more than Alfred Kinsey set out to undermine sex. He argues that just as sex has survived Kinsey, religion can survive similar examination.

Perhaps, but only among those who are willing to submit their religious beliefs to rational examination in the first place. Those whose beliefs represent the greatest threat in the modern world--fundamentalists, Islamic and Christian--will not submit what they believe to rational examination. And so to them, rational arguments take place in dog whistles that they can't hear. Dennett's rational examination is liable to do the most good, then, with the great mass in the middle, people sympathetic to religion but not living every moment obsessed by their gods. Many of them may be persuadable to see that by giving religion a free pass without examination, we willfully ignore the silliness we know it can lead to. If rational examiniation means more skepticism toward fundamentalism on the part of people smart enough to know better, good--especially if that skepticism diminishes the credibility and power the fundies currently possess, especially in the United States.

Dennett wasn't asked directly about the cartoon controversy, but one of his comments speaks to it.
We cannot let any group, however devout, blackmail us into silence by their expressions of hurt feelings whenever they feel that we are getting close to the truth. That is what con artists do when their marks begin to get suspicious, and that is what children do when they can't have their way, and it should be beneath the dignity of any religious group to play that card. The responsibility of science is to safeguard the well-being of those it studies and to tell the truth. If people insist on taking themselves out of the arena of reasonable political discourse and mutual examination, they forfeit their right to be heard. There is no excuse for deliberately insulting anybody, but people who insist on putting their sensibilities on a hair trigger demonstrate that they prefer pity to respect.
("Preferring pity to respect" is a fine capsule description of America's "embattled" fundies, who are so in love with their victimhood that they can't see how much power they really have.) What Dennett is suggesting here, I think, is that it's wrong to go around poking religious believers with a stick just to stir them up--but that when they stir themselves up out of paranoia, for example, we're under no obligation to respond under those circumstances. Which is why I think American media outlets refusing to show or print the cartoons of Muhammad for fear of offending Muslim sensibilities are wrong. If Islam is as strong, right, and powerful as Muslims believe, the Prophet can take it.

Although I'm skeptical of how much good it will do in our real world at the moment, I'm certainly not opposed to rationally examining religious belief. When I began rationally examining mine, it turned out to be (no exaggeration) the best thing that ever happened to me--because I got rid of it. I don't expect the world to follow suit, given that the human species is biologically disposed toward irrational explanations of mysterious things. But the human story is nothing less than the story of our ongoing mastery of the physical world. We've overcome other biological limitations, so why not hope that our religious wiring is one of the next ones to go?

Recommended Reading: Also from Salon, a Danish journalist explains the genesis of the offensive cartoons. Turns out Denmark isn't quite as tolerant as advertised. And Juan Cole explains how anger over the cartoons is being used in different countries around the Muslim world, and how it has nothing to do with Denmark.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

That's a Nice Looking Glass You've Got There, Alice
Good morning Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea . . . here now the news, where practically nothing is what it seems to be.

--Little Georgie Deutsch has resigned from his public affairs post at NASA, after it was revealed that he never actually graduated from Texas A&M. You'd think his government background check might have included confirming the major points of his resume. Then again, if your politics are correct, the rest of it is just details, right? Deutsch's resignation isn't going to fix the problem of the administration politicizing science and making stuff up out of whole cloth and Bible verses, but it's nice to see at least one sanctimonious Republican twit get his comeuppance.

--The cartoon controversy is continuing. Editors at the New York Press, an alt-weekly, quit their jobs late yesterday when the paper's management changed its mind at the last minute and refused to print the cartoons, after the paper had vigorously criticized other print outlets for refusing to print them. A blogger named Boozhy wrote about the resignations overnight, and received an interesting comment from a reader. (Scroll down to the first comment after the post.) The reader says publication of the cartoons, which first occurred last September in Denmark and only recently in other European countries, is part of a plot by the shadowy Bilderberg Group, which is supposed to be running the world in many shadowy ways, and which has close ties to the Danish newspaper that started the whole thing. By inflaming the Muslim world, he says, the West will have an easier time justifying the annihilation of it in the name of security. I don't think I buy it, but with the bar for stone-crazy-but-plausible as low as it is right now, I can't discount it, either.

--I thought that the bill I wrote about Monday, mandating that Wisconsin kids up to age eight be belted into child safety seats in cars, was still in commmittee. (According to the State Assembly's database, it was.) But the governor signed it into law yesterday. The bill was proposed and passed in response to federal initiatives, and the state can now get a chunk of federal highway money it would otherwise have lost. There's nothing wrong with the bill, really. What makes it seem absurd, as I noted Monday, is another bill before the Legislature that would lower the hunting age to eight. Remember, guns don't kill people--cars do.

Recommended Reading: Martin Luther King's legacy has been sanded off quite a bit since the political backlash against all things '60s began in the Nixon years. For a lot of Americans, especially conservatives, he's now a cartoon symbol of a bland and non-threatening "equality." Banished from historical memory is the radical nature of his politics, on subjects ranging from economic justice to war and peace. The real, radical King, and not the safe symbol, was invoked again and again at Coretta Scott King's funeral, which is why conservative commentators are losing their minds about the terrible and unseemly spectacle liberals made of themselves yesterday. Steve Gilliard at the News Blog, who is African American, goes off on the idiocy and hypocrisy in fine style here.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Watching Cartoons
Used to be that conservatives saw themselves as fearless, upright, and manly individualists (even the women) who wouldn't be told what to do, but would follow the Lodestar of Self-Evident Truth wherever it led them. They surely weren't like liberals, who were a bunch of bed-wetting nancy-boys whose testicles were full of tapioca. But with the illegal wiretapping scandal, the whole thing's turned on its head. Suddenly, conservatives are saying the only proper course is to trust the administration, and most important of all, not to ask questions, but to do your duty meekly, in whatever way your duty is described to you by people in a better position than you to know what it is. At Pandagon, Amanda Marcotte charts the paradigm shift.

On the subject of "truth," last Sunday we introduced you to George Deutsch, 24-year-old public-affairs officer at NASA, who presumed to explain science to scientists by editing their reports so that they didn't claim the Big Bang or global warming theories were true. Turns out it's even worse than it seemed last week. If he were only a Bush appointee with a journalism degree, he would still be clearly unqualified to tell professional scientists anything except when their coffee is ready--but it turns out that he never actually graduated from A&M.

You couldn't make this stuff up.

Doonesbury They Ain't: I haven't spent a great deal of time reading about the Danish cartoon controversy that's inflamed the Muslim world--in fact, if The Mrs. wasn't of mostly Danish ancestry, I probably wouldn't have spent any time on it at all. I have noticed that American media outlets either won't show the cartoons at all, or digitally obscure them when they report on the reaction to them. How precious. They claim it's to avoid offending sensitive viewers, but it's mostly ass-covering. Of course, it's not the first time they've been cowed into submission for fear of offending fanatics. It's been happening almost daily for the last five years. Over at Best of the Blogs, Blackdogred notes, and not for the first time, that there's a fine line between Muslim fanatics and right-wing Christian fanatics--who continually go looking for reasons to launch their own jihads against "blasphemy." So winger criticism of the embassy-burners' actions is a little bit hypocritical.

It seems crazy to burn down embassies over some offensive cartoons, but a lot of things people do in the name of religion seem crazy to me. If you want to see the cartoons--which are neither especially clever nor funny--click here.

The War at Home
One of the reasons Americans don't seem all that upset about torture, I think, is that the people who are getting tortured are not being tortured on American soil, taken from American soil, or are not Americans at all. It's happening to people from other countries, in other countries, and everyone knows how poor we are at finding our own country on a map, let alone other countries. But what's worried me about torture from the beginning is that there's absolutely nothing--not one damn thing--stopping He Who Shall Not Be Named from ordering American citizens to be tortured on American soil. If the Constitution doesn't have to apply to various brown people with funny names, it doesn't have to apply to us, either.

Given what Newsweek is reporting this week, such an order may not be far off. The Justice Department discussed scenarios recently regarding whether the president could order the killing of a terrorist on American soil--not necessarily one planning an imminent attack, but merely one we'd identified as such. (Rather like Israel has done for years.) The answer, of course, is going to be yes, no matter how much administration officials deny it, because as Abu Gonzales has made clear this week, the president can do whatever the president wants because we're at war.

And if they can kill them here, certainly they can torture them here, particularly if the standard is that they need merely to be suspected terrorists. And if they can torture foreign terror suspects here, then they can torture homegrown suspects, too. There's little question in my mind that once we start "fighting" this "war" on American soil, bringing the rest of it home is a mighty short trip.

From Another Lifetime: Before I became a low-rent pundit with this crappy blog--many years before--I was a radio DJ. At my other blog, The Hits Just Keep On Comin', readers occasionally ask if I've got any airchecks of old shows that they can hear. I finally put one up today. Click at your own risk.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Hug a Loved One, Read a Book
The people at Blogger and Blogspot are going to take the system down again tonight at 9PM Central time. This means that my blog and others on Blogspot, such as Atrios and AMERICABlog, will be down. It's supposed to be for an hour, but the outages over the weekend were supposed to be short, too, and they weren't. So if you're not able to read this, that's why.

Uh, maybe I'd better rephrase that . . .

Recommended Reading
: Either before or after the whole edifice comes crashing down, get more on the Rolling Stones at the Super Bowl from The Hits Just Keep On Comin'.

Cub Scouts Unbuckle, Open Fire
I love Wisconsin, as you know. Our football, our college hockey (and the two are meeting this coming Saturday when the Badger men's hockey team plays Ohio State on an outdoor rink at Lambeau Field in Green Bay), our forests, our lakes, our accents.

Our legislators. Generally, it's our Republicans who are a never-ending source of entertainment. To be fair, however, the latest and most entertaining events to come out of the Capitol involve professional comics from both sides of the aisle.

In addition to the other stuff we love, we also love our hunting up here. Interest in hunting is declining in the state--after all, there are a lot more grocery stores now than there used to be--so State Representative Scott Gunderson proposed a bill in the Assembly to lower the minimum hunting age from 12, which it's been for time immemorial, to eight. Late last year, the Assembly passed it by something like 73-26.

Thirty-eight other states have minimum hunting ages lower than 12, and "everybody else is doing it" is usually justification enough for a lot of our legislators to act on various proposals. (In that regard, they're as immune to "if everyone jumped off of a bridge, would you do it too?" as the average eight-year-old.) But objections to the bill are fairly obvious: There are adult hunters who can't tell the difference between a deer and a cow, or a deer and a house, or a deer and another hunter. Are we guessing that eight-year-olds will be any less likely to suffer this malady? The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story linked above lists several other reasonable objections to the law, but proponents say that the requirement that young hunters take a hunter-safety class will make everything OK. But if you know anything about eight-year-olds, you know about their attention spans--and the idea that one course will turn them into responsible hunters becomes a lot less persuasive.

But eight-year-olds getting all cute in camo is not where our legislators really bring the funny. They really bring the funny with this: Six weeks after the hunting bill passed, another bill is making its way through an Assembly committee (sponsored by several members, including my representative, who's a Democrat) that would raise the age below which kids must ride in car-safety seats. The age limit is currently four. The new bill would raise it to eight. If this passes, Wisconsin law would thus mandate the following: On the day before your eighth birthday, you would need to ride all buckled in a car-safety seat as you have done since you were a baby. The next day, when you turn eight, you could get a rifle (or a bow and arrow, also covered by the law) and go hunting.

Gee, they grow up so fast, don't they? Ladies and gentlemen, your Wisconsin legislature. Don't forget to tip your waiters and waitresses, and drive safely on the way home.

Triumph of the Yinzers: OK, so I don't know a damn thing about football, and hats off to the Steelers. I do know a little bit about commercials, however, and yesterday's crop of Super Bowl spots was as un-memorable as any in history. There wasn't a single standout. Neither was the halftime show especially memorable--the Rolling Stones sped through three tunes in their usual ragged fashion (the Stones have never sounded remotely as good to me playing live as they do in the studio). They seem to have censored the more risque lyrics on "Start Me Up" and "Rough Justice," but at least one story I read this morning was unsure whether Mick dropped them himself or ABC used the five-second delay on which they'd placed the entire broadcast. But that's getting very little notice today, and it's not worth much. Thanks to Janet Jackson, we're living on Planet Bluenose, and we'd best get used to it.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Ich Bin Ein Yinzer
An import, actually. I moved to Pittsburgh from State College, PA in 1999 and have worked here ever since, though we now live about 40 miles outside of the Burgh.

In this very blog I've remarked previously that I'm not a sports guy. For example, I can't name one current member of the Pirates or the Penguins. But you gotta be a friggin jag not to have absorbed the local vibe over the past several weeks. Superbowl XL is the first game I've watched start-to-finish since XXIV (which ended in a less-than-suspenseful 55 to 10).

The first thing I have to say about tonight's win is that JB is part of a concerted campaign of negativity and disinformation expressly intended to undermine the Steelers' karma. To this end he has failed miserably, and I say neener-neener.

The second thing is that I'm glad that Jerome Bettis got his trophy. By all accounts he's a genuinely nice guy, and he only came back this year because Pittsburgh seemed to get so close last season. He announced his retirement at tonight's post-game award ceremony, which I think is a fitting and classy move.

Third, I have to be honest and say that if I'd heard "one for the thumb" one more time, I'd have freaked out.

Fourth, that was quite a game, in my humble opinion. I hear that most Superbowls are all but decided by the end of the 3rd quarter, but not this one. If I could be guaranteed that all games would be that gripping, I promise I'd start watching more regularly.

I won't bore you with any half-assed commentary, other than to say that Antwaan Randell El's touchdown pass to Heinz Ward was really cool, and it just might bump the sacrosanct "Immaculate Reception" out of the top slot in the Pittsburgh Pantheon of Perfect Plays.

And now a word about the accent. If you haven't heard it spoken in natural conversation, you know nothing about it because it's as unmistakable as it is unintelligible. The first time you encounter it, in fact, you'll have a hard time even believing that it's real. I've lived among its speakers for over six years now and can understand all but the most hardcore speakers, but I haven't absorbed the accent, so I'll always be an import.

Import or native, every Yinzer will be giddy with afterglow at least through the next NFL draft, and tonight's win will be discussed in breathless present tense for decades to come. We will be swept along in the swoon of vicarious victory, until people start chanting "one for the first finger of the other hand."

And JB will still be predicting the other team to win against Pittsburgh.

Twilight of the Yinzers
Each year, the Super Bowl jumps the shark right after Media Day, which is the Tuesday before the game, when reporters looking to make their reputations or reporters who know nothing about football write their stories. But even the foaming hype and rabid stupidity is part of the spectacle, and it's bound to happen as long as the NFL insists on having an off-week between the playoffs and the big game.

(As bad as the off-week is, the 5:25PM Central time kickoff may be worse. In 1997 and 1998, when the Packers were in the game, Super Sunday was the longest day of my life, and even when I have no rooting interest in the game, the day seems strangely elongated. We're driving an hour to a Super Bowl party, and because the game won't be over until almost 9:30, we'll be back way too late for a Sunday night.)

I did learn some interesting stuff amidst the hype this week. For example, Jerome Bettis, the Steelers' running back, destined for the Hall of Fame and expected to retire after this game, is a native of Detroit, site of today's game (indoors, although they're having a blizzard there today). That's not the fact I learned--everybody already knows this because it is the single most-reported fact of 2006. The only people who don't know this are being held incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay. What's interesting is that he was presented with a key to the city this week--an honor which was last extended to Saddam Hussein in 1980.

You couldn't make that stuff up. Bettis got off a great line when somebody pointed it out to him: "I think they've changed the locks since then."

I also learned that Pittsburgh has its own dialect. One distinct feature of it is "yinz," which is the Western Pennsylvania equivalent of "y'all." Pittsburghers sometimes call themselves "yinzers," and there's a local literary magazine called the New Yinzer. There are certain similarities between Pittsburgh dialect and our Wisconsin dialect--especially the tendency to slur entire phrases into single words, and to refer to soft drinks such as Pepsi and 7Up as "pop." (Given that sometime Aneurysm contributor Tom Herbst lives in the Pittsburgh area, I expect we may be hearing more about this at some point.)

I have also learned that there are many, many ways to pick the winner of this game. You can go hardcore, and try to decide based on the nuances of Pittsburgh's zone blitz versus Seattle's version of the fabled West Coast offense. You can go simple, as one talk-show host did during the week, saying that Pittsburgh has more good players, ergo, they win. You can take the gambler's perspective (current line: Steelers by 4) and note that since 2000, the Steelers are 33-16-4 against the spread when favored, while the Seahawks are 21-23-2 when they're underdogs over the same period. You can take the psychology factor. Few people are giving Seattle a chance--in fact, a significant number of observers don't seem to know that there's a team other than Pittsburgh in this game. (ESPN, to name one. Within hours of moving their entire operation to Detroit last Monday, they crossed the line from reporting and analysis into acting like preteen girls at an NSync concert.)

Or you can do what I'm doing to pick this game. Pittsburgh has been on a win-or-go-home roll since early December, fueled by emotion, guts, and momentum. Seattle, meanwhile, has gotten used to playing, resting, and then playing again. So I believe the off-week is going to turn what could have been a tremendous game last weekend into one of those championship snoozers we've seen so often in Super Bowls past. And I'm picking against the Steelers for the third straight time. (Sorry, Tom.)

Seattle 27, Pittsburgh 10. If you're not ascared (as the yinzers say), record your own prediction for posterity in the Comment section.

Red State Red Pencil
George Deutsch is 24 years old, a 2003 graduate of Texas A&M University with a degree in journalism. He's got a nice gig for a kid so young--as a public-affairs officer at NASA, appointed by the White House. His primary qualifications are that he interned with the Bush/Cheney campaign, and he produced state-of-the-art wingnuttery while a columnist for the campus paper at A&M. And that would be fine if that's where it ended, but George--remember, he's a 24-year-old kid with a degree in journalism--took it upon himself to edit the findings of NASA scientists in technical reports on subjects such as global warming and the Big Bang. For example, he insisted that the word "theory" follow every mention of the Big Bang in one scientific report, and according to the New York Times, got snippy in his memo:
The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

It continued: "This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most."
The Times article reports that NASA's style guide does indeed mandate that "Big Bang" be followed by the word "theory." Now, if I were a 24-year-old on my first bigtime gig, I'd have noted that on the draft and stopped, because my job would be done. But not little Georgie, who couldn't keep his little wingnut piehole shut without making the baby Jesus cry.

NASA's administrators have criticized Deutsch's actions--but they should have put him on the first plane back to College Station, Texas, and told him to take a couple of goddamn science courses. As it is, he'll probably be running for Congress in a couple of years.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Testing, One Two
Blogger and Blogspot have been having periodic outages today, apparently--and those outages take down a lot of the major blogs across the Internet when they happen. (And also this crappy minor blog.) Haloscan comments were also weird earlier this afternoon. So what follows is a test post to see if things work like they're supposed to.
If a chicken-and-a-half can lay an egg-and-a-half in a day-and-a-half, how long does it take a one-legged man to kick the seeds out of a dill pickle?
No, really. If you can read this message and comment on it, then everything's OK.

Coming tomorrow: I guess at the winner of the Super Bowl. I'll try to post my pick early enough in the day so you can put money on the team I pick to lose, which is definitely the sensible way to apply my expertise.

Friday, February 03, 2006

That's Why the Gentleman Is a Tramp
I'm a guy who's in touch with his feminine side. Most of the close friendships I've made in my adult life have been with women. At my last corporate job, I was the only man in a department with 20 women, and I got invited to go shoe-shopping with them at least once. Bottom line: I can dish the dirt with the girls like I was one of 'em, baby. So I feel no qualm in admitting that I like Broadsheet, the female-oriented blog Salon launched last fall.

I like Broadsheet because I learn stuff like this: Harlequin Romances and NASCAR are introducing a series of racing-themed bodice rippers. As is the case with regular Harlequin romances, it's the men who will be the creatures of action and the women who will have their bodices ripped, and not the other way around. That's partly because those jumpsuits racers wear don't have bodices, and partly because there are no female drivers in NASCAR's major series anyway. (Imagine the good old boy conniptions that would ensue if there were.) We presume that many NASCAR fans can read--can't we?--but the question is, will they?

I also learned that the Liberty Counsel in Orlando, Florida (an organization whose name takes a disturbing amount of liberty with proper spelling--shouldn't it be "council"?), has decided that Valentine's Day would be a good time for the nation's teenagers to take yet another abstinence pledge. (I swear, pledging abstinence to these people is like being born again to these people--you have to do it every five minutes or it won't take.) This will actually be the third time they've done this, which shows you how effective it's been at penetrating the national consciousness.

Mmmm, penetrating . . . sorry. Where was I? Lots of religious and private schools are participating in this, although in the South, there are lots of public schools on the list, too, in many of the same places where NASCAR is hugely popular. So can we presume that all of the bodice-ripping that occurs in the NASCAR romances will be of wedding dresses? True love waits, after all.

Also on my feminine side, after I pronounced recently that Wonkette had jumped the shark by replacing Ana Marie Cox with male bloggers (a subject Broadsheet got into earlier this week), I received a report that the new guys are, in fact, funny. Those of us who miss Ana Marie are thrilled to learn that she's got her own blog, which debuted earlier this week. She's already tossed off a line worthy of being Quote of the Day. Commenting on the adminstration's rebranding of the war on terror as "the long war," she suggests that other administration initiatives could be similarly rebranded:
"No Child Left Behind" = "Some Children Left Behind, Mostly Poor Ones"
"Hurricane Katrina Disaster Relief and Economic Recovery Act" = "Giving the Appearance of Taking Action Until the Sad Pictures Go Away Act"
"Patriot Act" = "Welcome to Oceania"
Good to have you back, darlin'.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Quote of the Year (So Far)
Russ Feingold:
This administration reacts to any questions about spying on American citizens by saying that those of us who stand up for our rights and freedoms are somehow living in a "pre-September 11th, 2001 world."

In fact, the President is living in a pre-1776 world.
[Insert sound of blogger's heart fluttering like infatuated schoolgirl here.]

No Spill Blood
I put little stock in premonitions, prophecies, or divinations. That goes for your Aunt's knee that twitches before a snowstorm and those stories about dogs magically "sensing" when their owners are about to return home. Bunk, the lot of it. If you have hard evidence to the contrary, there's a guy willing to pay you a cool million for it.

In spite of all that, I had my very own psychic event on Tuesday afternoon. That morning I'd participated in the thrice-yearly blood drive sponsored on-site by my employer. This was about the sixth time I've donated at the drive, and about the sixteenth or seventeenth in my life, without ever having a negative reaction outside of disappointment at learning that the juicebar was out of Cranapple.

Later, I was sitting in my cube when I mentioned to my neighbor that I felt a mite queasy. The queasiness progressed throughout the day until at 5:00 p.m. I ventured to the restroom, where I undertook an impromptu visual inspection of my most recent few meals. I'll spare you the details, but let's say that I was very thorough about it. So thorough, in fact, that I later repeated the inspection on I-79 and then numerous times at home before collapsing, emptied and exhausted, into something like sleep a little after midnight. A disgusting evening, I assure you.

But not nearly as disgusting for me as for those of you who sat through The State of the Union. It's clear to me now that my "gut feeling" was warning me that our esteemed Prez was about to unleash an indigestible torrent of his own.

See if I understand the gist of the transcript: gas/electric hybrids yes, human/animal hybrids no.

I'm a bit vague on hydrogen fuel technology, but I have read The Island of Doctor Moreau within the past year, so I know a little about unholy animal/human matchups (though I'm no connoisseur like Neal Horsley, of coursely of coursely).

Let's review what The Sayers of the Law have to offer on the subject of human/animal legality:
"Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men? "Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men? "Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men? "Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men? "Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?"
1. Not to go on all-fours
2. Not to suck up Drink
3. Not to eat Fish or Flesh
4. Not to claw the Bark of Trees
5. Not to chase other Men

I'm not sure what all of this means, but I'll bet my psychic stomach that Dubya is hiding something.

Oprah's Got Nothin' on Us
Yesterday, I finished reading Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk. I picked it up in part to complete a presentation I gave on Lincoln's image to a Civil War symposium last weekend (didn't know I was such a scholar, did ya?), but also because I've enjoyed Shenk's work in Harper's. Last night I moved on to Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, Rock, and Country Music by Gene Santoro. One of my favorite subjects involves exploring the ways in which these four often-disparate genres have inspired one another in the last 100 years, and Santoro proposes to find some new connections.

So: In those two titles, you've pretty much got the picture of the sort of thing I like to read. Click "Comments" and tell the class what you're reading right now, and why. Think of it as the Oprah Book Club for people who weren't likely to read James Frey anyhow.

How's that for a novel way to get me out of substantive blogging today?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

C-Span Becomes the Sci-Fi Channel, and Other Great Moments in Dumbitude
Clearly, the big "what the hell did he just say?" moment from the State of the Union speech last night was the bit asking Congress to pass legislation banning "human-animal hybrids." I missed it completely when perusing the transcript this morning, but a friend called it to my attention. P.Z. Myers explains that yes, there is something happening in the reality-based community that could be construed as creating human-animal hybrids, although you'd have to be an ignorant hysteric to see it as evil. It's actually being done in hopes of finding a cure for Down's Syndrome.

Gosh, nobody wants to see that happen.

Myers also takes Quote of the Day for explaining why this reference was in the speech to begin with. I guessed it was probably wingnut code of some kind, like the reference to the Dred Scott decision during one of the debates with Kerry. But Myers says that actually, "It's pure political calculus. He throws away the mad scientist and pig-man vote, and wins the religious ignoramus vote . . . and we know which one has the majority here."

(By the way, Echidne of the Snakes thinks she's found the actual wingnut code in last night's speech.)

So now that the big speech is over, the post-speech campaign swing is underway. He was in Nashville this afternoon, where he gave another version of the speech that sparked this humorous headline from the AP: "Bush Urges Confidence in His Leadership." Tell you what, sir--I'll start having confidence in you when you stop saying manifestly ignorant things like our economy is "roaring." Or that we're going to cut oil imports by 75 percent, which you quite clearly said, but your flacks rolled that back with amazing speed. It's astounding to me that the single point from the speech most swiftly revealed as bullshit--by the White House itself--was the big, headline-grabbing point released before the speech last night. (It would be even more astounding if Bush hadn't already raised the bar for bullshit that astounds.)

"Human-animal hybrids." Christ. I'd love to live in a country where that's a big threat. I'd gladly trade our pending economic and environmental disasters for it. And he wants us to have confidence in his leadeship. There's something pathetic about that. A real leader, someone who's capable and who knows he's capable, doesn't have to ask people to have confidence in him. For Bush to urge people to have confidence in his leadership is a little like me going to the Super Bowl and urging people to have confidence in my ability to quarterback the Steelers. And it's going to turn out about as well.

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