Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for November, 2007

The housing market – everything you know is bad

Posted by metaphorical on 28 November 2007

The most popular article here for the past week has been a March piece, “The housing market: everything you know is wrong.”

You might wonder about why, except that there’s lots of news on the housing front, all bad. For example, there’s this in today’s NY Times.

Home Prices Post Big Drop in Survey

Housing prices fell the most in almost 20 years this summer, and consumers remain deeply skeptical about the economy, according to reports released yesterday.

Prices of single-family homes in the third quarter fell 4.5 percent nationwide compared with a year ago, according to the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller National Home Price Index. It was the largest drop since records for the index began in 1988.

A separate survey by S.& P./Case-Shiller of home prices in 20 major metropolitan areas showed a drop of 4.95 percent in September from a year ago, the biggest decline in more than six years. Prices declined 0.9 percent in September alone, and were down in all 20 areas, the survey found.

As well, Reuters reports that

Existing home sales fall to record low

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Sales of previously owned homes fell 8.0 percent in September to a record low 5.04 million unit pace amid troubles in the subprime mortgage and credit markets, the National Association of Realtors said on Wednesday.

It was the lowest sales pace since the realtor group began tracking both single-family and condo sales jointly in 1999.

What we’re seeing is the effects of a number of trends, which take a long time to show up in a market like housing. There’s the sub-prime mortgage fiasco, the slackness of the economy, the weakened dollar abroad, slower consumer spending, sluggish at best employmnet growth, the high price of gas and heating oil, and a vast lack of confidence in the economy.

Pricing data in particular is misleading, because we don’t know anything like a true market value until a home is actually sold. So for example, someone lists their home for $300,000. They get no bites and eventually, a year later, sell it for $200,000. What was the market value during that year? Arguably something much closer to $200,000 than $300,000. And it certainly isn’t the $330,000 that they paid for it three years earlier.

The longer people wait to sell, the more misleading pricing data is. We also don’t really know how many people want to sell their homes, so we don’t even have good supply-vs-demand data. What we do know is that the housing market is collapsing, and it was the only thing behind whatever good enconomic news we’ve had for the past few years. It’s going to be a poor Christmas season for most merchants, and that’s going to provide more bad news for the next quarter or two at least.

Posted in politics, pop culture | 1 Comment »

Kitsch & Culture

Posted by metaphorical on 25 November 2007

If you need to encapsulate the entire American Christmas experience in 20 minutes, you could hardly do better than to spend your time at Fountains of Wayne.

In turn, the Fountains of Wayne experience is so weird that if you have to describe it in a sentence, you could hardly do better than the one above. It’s a place that sells outdoor furniture and other stuff during the regular year, and Christmas stuff during the season. But 30 years ago it began to create life-sized Christmas-themed dioramas. The served their intended effect — to get more people into the store — and then took on a life of their own. Downstairs there’s a fairly normal set of incredibly crafted displays.

But upstairs, the displays are beyond kitsch. Not all are about Christmas — a Parisian rodent chef cooks dinner; a pirate cove paradise hideaway, repleat with grass-skirted women. But most are.

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There’s Santa playing poker at a casino; snorkling in shark-infested waters; running for political office; sleeping in on Christmas Eve (as Ms Santa waves a calendar at him to no avail); surviving on the tv show “Survivor”; and riding a jetski while Ms Claus sunbathes. You can find Santa waiting for dinner at a sushi bar that’s also, for some reason, a hangout for Harley Davidson bikers.

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Fourtains of Wayne is such a weird place that a rock band chose its name for its own. (I don’t know how well-known they are nationally, except for a 2003 breakout hit, “Stacy’s Mom.”) The place itself has been featured on Roadside America.

The thing that makes Fountains of Wayne such as exceptionally weird place for me, and ultimately representative of more than just a uniquely American blend of kitsch and commerce — and make no mistake about it, a place that sells $1200 artificial Christmas trees is about commerce — is that its owners care almost as much for the religous meaning of Christmas as the commercial and kitschy ones. Various other dioramas depict the Three Wise Men and Joseph and Mary in the stables.

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I don’t really know what to make of it. I generally don’t have much regard for Christian values as such. They’re either the right values to hold or not, and if right, they’re only degraded by not being held for their own sake.

Then too, some people find out-of-control Christmas-shopping-mania to be inconsistent with the core Christian values behind the Bible stories of respecting the poor and throwing the moneylenders out of the temple. Fountains of Wayne doesn’t have that problem. There are collection pots to help the local poor, and for the rest, their Christmas values can presumably be discounted 15% — 20% with an Internet coupon — along with everything else in the store. Come on down.

Posted in philosophy, pop culture, travel | 1 Comment »

Open season on idiots – at least in blogs

Posted by metaphorical on 25 November 2007

I don’t know how he hit a several-thousand-pound cow mistaking it for a coyote. — Rory Heckman, Benzie County undersheriff, UPI

According to the Traverse City Record-Eagle, which broke the story,

Richard Buckner, 42, allegedly downed a neighbor’s pregnant, 1,400-pound breeding cow on Nov. 17 at about 8:30 a.m.

Buckner allegedly told sheriff’s officials he was poaching coyotes in the woods near his home on Wooden Bridge Road when he shot what he believed to be a coyote, Benzie Undersheriff Rory Heckman said.

The cow, named Hannah, wandered away from a nearby farm before Buckner shot the pregnant bovine and attempted to drag it to his home, said DeAnn Mosher, Hannah’s owner.

“That is the part of his story he his holding to is he shot at a coyote. I don’t know how he hit a several thousand pound cow mistaking it for a coyote,” Heckman said. “You can’t even shoot at a coyote during the firearm deer season.”

Hunting is a sport that connects us with some of the most fundamental facts about being human. It needs no defense in principle. The problems with it have to with finding a place for it in an increasingly urbanized culture. Hunting today, in many parts of the U.S., is about as natural as a golf course.

People without the proper skills or ethics can stand side by side with those who do, indistinguishable from them, until they go off and shoot a cow — or a coyote, equally off-limits and only marginally less stupid during the deer hunting season. If I were a hunter I would wish, if only for a fleeting moment, that we could have an open season on Buckner and the other idiots who make hunting problematic for responsible hunters and for everyone else.

Posted in animal-rights, food, language, pop culture, sports | 6 Comments »

And how would the candidates know what to say, anyway?

Posted by metaphorical on 22 November 2007

Here’s an interesting development in the Hollywood writer’s strike: it may affect the next Democratic presidential debate.

New York, NY (AHN) – The ongoing writer’s strike in Hollywood has started to have an effect on the political arena, as the upcoming CBS presidential debate is being threatened as candidates refuse to cross the picket lines should the station writers decide to join the strike.

Although CBS news writers have yet to talk of joining the strike, guild leaders are allowed to call one at any time, should they see it necessary. Candidates have been publicly announcing their respect for the strikers, as many of them have canceled television appearances for the sake of not crossing picket lines.

And not just the debates:

United Press International reported that Sen. John Edwards and his wife Elizabeth have canceled a scheduled appearance on “The View” so as not to cross the picket lines of the Writes Guild of America.

We’ve seen this before, of course. Newspaper and magazine writers had to get their digital due from the Supreme Court (Tasini vs NY Times).

What is it about digital that makes media companies think it’s any different from any other form that a work can take? Does it really matter, when it comes to paying a writer, whether you watch an episode of CSI on your television screen or your iPod?

Here’s the best statement of the writer’s point of view I’ve seen. It’s less than 2 minutes long and managest to say everything that needs to be said.

Studios, just pay the people with the talent. All of them. Just pay them and stop whining.

Posted in journalism, politics, pop culture, screenwriting, technology, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Now Beowulf bode in the burg of the Hollywoodlings

Posted by metaphorical on 18 November 2007

I’m excited enough to squirm in my seat. I’ve already downloaded a copy from Project Gutenberg to re-read this week.

The kid was so excited about this movie that when she saw a preview for it this summer, she immediately called me to ask if I knew there was going to be a movie based on Beowulf?!!!? (Besides being a music geek and an art geek, she’s something of a poetry geek.)

Friday morning, when I saw it was to open over the weekend, I texted her frantically to ask if she could wait until Thanksgiving to see it, so we could go together.

A mailing list I’m on notes that Roger Ebert is back in top form in his review. (Thanks, JRH, for the link.)

Here are just a couple of the many gems:

To this court comes the heroic Geatsman named Beowulf (Ray Winstone), who in the manner of a Gilbert & Sullivan hero is forever making boasts about himself. He is the very model of a medieval monster slaughterer.

“I saw the movie in IMAX 3-D, as I said, and like all 3-D movies it spends a lot of time throwing things at the audience: Spears, blood, arms, legs, bodies, tables, heads, mead, and so forth. The movie is also showing in non-IMAX 3-D, and in the usual 2-D. Not bad for a one-dimensional story.”

Anyway, the kid and I will be going on Thursday, and I expect that we’ll enjoy ourselves immensely, at least in the same post-modern laugh-at-it-as-well-as-with-it way that she and I have enjoyed classic movies going back as far as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” when she was about 5. Maybe we can even, as we did back then, find an air hockey game for after the show.

Posted in journalism, pop culture, screenwriting, the arts | Leave a Comment »

Writing considered harmful to the soul

Posted by metaphorical on 17 November 2007

I had another run-in with Judaism tonight. The kid was in town with a couple of her friends for a terrific afternoon at the Cloisters. We took them out to an early dinner at a nearby Indian vegetarian Kosher restaurant. It’s pretty new and I hadn’t been there before. I didn’t know what their wine situation was, so I grabbed a bottle from the rack on my way out the door.

I was hopeful when I saw the menu not listing any beer or wines, but no dice, they have a license. They were willing to open our bottle anyway, but first, a question. “Is the wine Kosher?”

No, and guess they would have had to throw out any glasses into which it was poured, but I suspect that even if we’d also brought glasses, it would have been a no-go. What kind of religion gives a darn not only what goes on in the kitchen but what the customers do out front?

The same kind, I guess, that won’t let you write a note to yourself in the notepad you always carry around, if the writing is done in a synagogue.

It was earlier this year at a friend’s daughter’s bas mitzvah. It was one of those orthodox ceremonies where people kiss each other hello right in the aisles and then launch into long, full-voice conversations, right in the middle of yet another prayer in a three-hour service. That’s okay, but writing down something so that you won’t forget it is verboten.

“Writing is work,” I was explained. Well, often it is, and often it isn’t. And you know what? Talking is work if you’re a radio DJ. Kissing is work if you’re, well, a person for whom kissing is work.

What kind of religion thinks it can identify an entire activity like writing or talking or walking and say whether it’s work or not, independently of any context? Pulling a lever 4 times a minute, 240 times per hour, is a lot of work if you’re on an assembly line, but it’s apparently vastly entertaining if you’re in a Las Vegas casino.

Unfortunately, there’s no context in which I can find Judaism entertaining these days. It’s just annoying and simple-minded, for the simple-minded.

Posted in religion, writing | 1 Comment »

Newspaper allegedly gets it wrong

Posted by metaphorical on 16 November 2007

The Daily News is far from the only paper to get this wrong, but it gets it more starkly wrong than most — right in the headline:

Barry Bonds indicted for allegedly lying under oath

You can look at the indictment, and as you might expect, the grand jury doesn’t charge Bonds with allegedly lying under oath, it charges him with lying under oath.

Take Count Five:

Barry Lamar Bonds, unlawfully, willfully, and knowingly, did corruptly endeavor to influence, obstruct, and impede the due administration of justice, by knowingly giving Grand Jury testimony that was intentionally evasive, false, and misleading….

The Daily News, in short, is commiting the sin of the double-qualifier. Either is correct:

. The grand jury indicted Bonds for x

. Bonds allegedly did x

but to put them together is to end up with something false, if not simply absurd.

Similarly, there’s a 20% chance of showers, and it might rain, but not, “there might be a 20% chance of rain.”

It is, in fact, a dead certainty that it might rain. And Bonds was absolutely indicted, not allegedly, for absolutely lying under oath, which he allegedly did.

Posted in journalism, Lang, language, pop culture, writing | Leave a Comment »

It wasn’t like he held a nail gun against the head of a cute little animal in front of the class

Posted by metaphorical on 14 November 2007

It’s hard to know what to like most about the story where a teacher kills a raccoon with a nailgun on school grounds, in preparation for giving his class a lesson on taxidermy.

The place is Huntsville, Ark. A student’s parent volunteered to provide the raccoon but brought it in a cage, without killing it. So the teacher took it out to his truck, where apparently he had a nailgun.

The school superintendent was quoted as saying:

“He used the nail gun to, as they say, to dispatch the animal,” Lievsay said. “It wasn’t like he held a nail gun against the head of a cute little animal in front of the class.”

Hutchinson used the dead raccoon to demonstrate how to skin the animal and to examine the contents of its stomach. Lievsay said only one student asked not to attend the skinning.

One thing I like about this story is that we’re not supposed to even question why there’s a taxidermy lesson in high school. But that’s just the start. What’s great is that this is no different in principle from any other pointless killing of an animal, it’s just more visibly pointless. There’s nothing that kids learn in high school from dissecting frogs, either.

Skinning a hog

The superintendent’s main concern was that the kids not actually see the nail shoot through the raccoon’s skull, just as the meat industry is careful to hide from the American public the horror of how it slaughters animals (often with the same method—a nailgun).

My suggestion for the high school in Huntsville is to have a club devoted to animal death. Students who want to kill animals can do it after classes end; teachers eager to teach kids how to kill, skin, or otherwise mutilate animals can, and students who aren’t interested don’t have to single themselves out by asking not to attend.

Posted in animal-rights, journalism, pop culture | 4 Comments »

Smoking out the right to do animal research

Posted by metaphorical on 7 November 2007

The Association of American Universities has a new press statement (PDF) defending the “vital role” that animal testing plays in medicine. Of course it does nothing to answer questions about a lot of other animal testing done by the cosmetics and other industries, but more importantly, the statement does nothing more than reiterate the same tired claims such statements always have made.

The research, for example, is said to conform “with ethical, legal, and safety regulations but also maintains the highest standards of animal care and health.” Sure it does. But if exceptions weren’t carved out for research, the activities would violate the animal rights laws in every state that has them, even as minimal and inadequate as those laws are.

The occasion of the statement is almost surely an October attack by the Animal Liberation Front on a UCLA researcher, Edythe London, and her November 1st op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times.

Let me say all the things about the ALF attack that one ought to say. According to Prof. London, the organization “claimed responsibility for vandalism that caused between $20,000 and $30,000 worth of damage to my home after extremists broke a window and inserted a garden hose, flooding the interior.” That’s a ridiculous, inappropriate, and stupid response to whatever ALF perceives as London’s sins. The organization just shouldn’t support such attacks. There’s just no theory of moral action under which it’s justified. It’s wrong, period.

That said, let’s look at London’s work and how she defends it ethically. Basically, she studies “nicotine addition among adolescents” and “some of [her] research is done on primates.” She says, “I have devoted my career to understanding how nicotine, methamphetamine and other drugs can hijack brain chemistry and leave the affected individual at the mercy of his or her addiction.”

Animal studies allow us to test potential treatments without confounding factors, such as prior drug use and other experiences that complicate human studies. Even more important, they allow us to test possibly life-saving treatments before they are considered safe to test in humans. Our animal studies address the effects of chronic drug use on brain functions, such as decision-making and self-control, that are impaired in human addicts. We are also testing potential treatments, and all of our studies comply with federal laws designed to ensure humane care.

While monkeys receive drugs in the laboratory, they do not become “addicted” in the same sense that humans become addicted. Still, we are able to see how changes in brain chemistry alter the way the brain works — knowledge that is vital to the design of effective medications.

London goes out of her way in the next paragraph to defend the fact that her research is sponsored, in part, by tobacco companies. But not a sentence, not a word, is offered to defend the implicit assumption that it’s okay to cage and experiment on monkeys.

It’s hard not to find this bewildering on other grounds as well. If monkeys don’t become addicted, then what reason is there to think that we’ll learn much from studying how changes in brain chemistry alter the way the brain works. Maybe there’s reason to think so, maybe not. London doesn’t have enough respect for us or monkeys to include it. This is a problem that often comes up with animal testing. Either no justification is given at all for the assumption that the animals are similar enough, in key respects, to humans, or the justifications are perfunctory. In London’s case, all we get is a statement that the animals are dissimilar to humans in a key respect.

You have to have no respect for animal life whatsoever to think it’s okay to proceed anyway. And that’s, presumably, what has ALF so upset. It’s impossible to defend their response, but it’s easy to defend the impulse.

Posted in animal-rights, journalism, language, Orwell | Leave a Comment »

Romancing the stone

Posted by metaphorical on 4 November 2007

Does the public really like romance movies? Especially ones that aren’t romantic comedies?

The answer seems to, “not so much.” A friend of mine recently asked me to name my two favorite romance movies, generously allowing, when asked, that romantic comedies were indeed romance movies. I came up with my first choice very quickly: The Lady Eve.

The second one didn’t come so quickly, so I went to the IMDB list of top 250 movies ever, as determined by the ratings given by the hundreds of thousands of people registered at the site. (Note that people simply rate movies; they’re not voting specifically for either their favorites nor what they think are best-ever.)

Is It’s a Wonderful Life (#31) a romance movie? Not really. Forrest Gump (#68)? Both are feel-good movies, but not romances. Singin’ in the Rain (#71)? No, it’s about something else. Back to the Future (#115)? Too much adventure and male bonding. Manhattan (#231)? One user comment at IMDB was, “A love song to Manhattan disguised as romantic comedy,” which I think is pretty accurate.

So here’s what we’re left with. I’ve italicized the romantic comedies.

  • 9. Casablanca (1942)
    46. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
    78. Some Like It Hot (1959)
    94. The Apartment (1960)
    123. Annie Hall (1977)
    138. It Happened One Night (1934)
    147. The Graduate (1967)
    148. The Princess Bride (1987)
    162. The African Queen (1951)
    173. Gone with the Wind (1939)
    179. Groundhog Day (1993)
    207. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
    244. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
    245. To Have and Have Not (1944)

Without the comedies, here’s what remains, a single movie in the top 10 (barely), two in the top 100, and another three making it into the top 200. With eight in the top 250, pure romance makes for a mere 3.2% of the list.

  • 9. Casablanca (1942)

    46. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
    147. The Graduate (1967)
    162. The African Queen (1951)
    173. Gone with the Wind (1939)
    207. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
    244. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
    245. To Have and Have Not (1944)

Even with the six comedies, the broad category of romance-movie accounts for less than 6% of people’s best-liked movies. To me, that seems odd. While I’ve never worked out my own personal top-250, it might well include three movies from the highly specialized category John-Cusack-romantic-comedies, none of which makes the IMDB list, or even comes very close (#250 of the top-250 gets a 7.9):

  • High Fidelity (7.6)
    Grosse Pointe Blank (7.4)
    The Sure Thing (6.7)

Oddly, When Harry Met Sally, which I would guess is one of the most cited movies of all time, also get a mere 7.6. Soapdish, one of the few totally successful screwball comedies to be made after the 1940s, and one of the funniest movies of all time, in my opinion, gets an embarrassing 6.0. But this just confirms that romance movies, even romantic comedies, maybe be a staple of movie life, but it’s rarely what we feast upon.

Either the romance movie just isn’t most people’s cup of tea, or, perhaps, if the fault lies in the stars, and not ourselves, it just rarely rises to greatness. (Here’s a clue: The Lady Eve gets an 8.1 rating, but apparently not from enough voters, or enough of the right voters.)

Posted in language, pop culture, the arts, writing | 5 Comments »

When is Italian not Mediterranean?

Posted by metaphorical on 1 November 2007

When it’s Italian cuisine, American-style.

The Mediterranean diet is one of the most healthful in the world. But when you Americanize it, you make it deadly.

Let’s first look at two quick things. First, the Mediterranean diet, as described by the American Heart Association:

    • * high consumption of fruits, vegetables, bread and other cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds

      * olive oil is an important monounsaturated fat source

      * dairy products, fish and poultry are consumed in low to moderate amounts, and little red meat is eaten

      * eggs are consumed zero to four times a week

      * wine is consumed in low to moderate amounts

  • The Association says,

    Mediterranean-style diets are often close to our dietary recommendations, but they don’t follow them exactly. In general, the diets of Mediterranean peoples contain a relatively high percentage of calories from fat. This is thought to contribute to the increasing obesity in these countries, which is becoming a concern.

    So the second thing is that regardless of diet, we’re advised not to eat too many calories. According to the NIH, for men, the recommended daily requirement ranges from about 2000-3000, depending on age and how “active” you are; for women, 1600-2400.

    Let’s keep these in mind when we look at Italian cuisine, American-style, as revealed in a new report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. As their own press release notes, they are “the nutrition watchdogs who famously called fettuccine Alfredo a “heart attack on a plate” when they first looked at Italian food in 1994.”

    CSPI looked at two large chains of Italian restaurants, Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill. I think I’ve never eaten at an Olive Garden, but I can attest that Macaroni Grill is a great value, it serves large portions of tasty food at relatively modest – as Italian food in the Northeast goes – prices.

    What CSPI found, though, was that those large portions contain an enormous number of calories, not just because of their size, but because of the meat and dairy they are loaded with. The organization’s nutrition director, Bonnie F. Liebman, says, “the heaping portions of meat, cheese, pasta, and cream sauces served up at Italian-style American chain restaurants are about as far from the ideal Mediterranean diet as you can get.”

    Let’s look at some numbers, first for a rather simple meal:

    Olive Garden’s Spaghetti & Meatballs

    You can expect 1,260 calories and a day’s worth of saturated fat (19 grams). That’s equal to the calories in three McDonald’s Quarter Pounders. If that seems like a lot to swallow, it’s half what you’d get in Macaroni Grill’s version.

    Macaroni Grill’s Spaghetti & Meatballs with meat sauce.

    The following nutrition numbers are not typos: Romano’s rendition of this classic dish provides more than an entire day’s calories (2,430) and nearly three days’ worth of saturated fat—an astonishing 57 grams. If you like meat, you could eat two Macaroni Grill Tuscan Rib-Eye steak dinners and inflict less damage. Or you could eat six Quarter Pounders for the same effect on your waistline.

    The Macaroni Grill’s Fettuccine Alfredo “lives up to the “heart attack on a plate” reputation with 1,130 calories and 53 grams of saturated fat—more than 21⁄2 days’ worth. (Olive Garden’s version had a few more calories but “only” 1.5 days’ worth of bad fat.) ?

    CSPI sums up the dining experience this way:

    Consider a hypothetical couple who dines at Romano’s Macaroni Grill: They share the calamari and the complimentary peasant bread. He orders the Penne Rustica; she the Chicken and Shrimp Scaloppine. They split the tiramisu. The damage? They’ve each had more than three days’ worth of saturated fat and sodium. And they’ve each had on the order of 2,800 calories—about a day-and-a-half’s worth. And those aren’t even the unhealthiest choices on the menu.

    The problem is two-fold. By putting this food in front of people, the restaurants encourage people to eat unhealthfully. And by hiding behind the facade of Italian food, people are likely to think they are eating a healthier meal than they would at McDonalds. They’d be wrong. As much as I would like to rail against fast food, the problem lies with the consumer. The average American meal is a disaster, whether it’s eaten at McDonalds or not.

    Posted in language | 2 Comments »

     
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