Politics, Technology, and Language

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

Archive for the ‘digglahhh’ Category

Oh, Reilly?

Posted by digglahhh on 11 April 2008

As if we need more tiresome, trite commentary about dead-horse issues from self-oblivious Luddites, Rick Reilly chimed with his opinions on the blogosphere’s contributions to sports journalism. Reilly is a well-known, highly regarded—by many, though not yours truly—sports journalist who left Sport Illustrated in 2007, after 23 years of service, to join the ranks of ESPN. (A move which, it should be noted, did not take him beyond the bounds of the Time Warner mediaplex.)

Normally, I’m not sufficiently motivated to defend the blogosphere from insulting platitudes, but seeing as how this one was deliciously ironic as well, I think it’s worth some keystrokes.

Okay, let’s get the meta-platitude out of the way. As the crew over at FireJoeMorgan phrased it when dissecting Reilly’s comments, “most stuff sucks.” To say that most sports blogging sucks is probably entirely true. But, it would be equally true to say that most sports print journalism sucks. Music, writing, dancing, television movies, everything – statistically, the great majority of it sucks! Thus, when Reilly calls internet sports journalism, “all over the map,” he is describing what he is talking about only as accurately as everything he is not talking about.

Now for the ironies. There are two of them. Reilly, conveniently, gives special recognition to the writers on ESPN.com, as the sort of hard-journalism antithesis of the stereotypical underwear-clad, mom’s-basement-dwelling, sports blogger. Perhaps Reilly is unaware the most popular columnist on ESPN’s website is Bill Simmons. Simmons is one of the pioneers of the sports blogging revolution. His columns are multi-thousand word ramblings packed with pop-culture references, bar stool hypotheses, and obscure tidbits about his friends and family. Reilly’s new home, and self-described beacon of quality journalism, gives its top billing to an ostensible blogger.

The other great irony stems from Reilly’s career itself. Reilly is most well known for his, “Life of Reilly” column that graced the back page of Sports Illustrated for many years. These columns were (at least attempts at) humorous quips. They were casual, side-bar commentaries. Reilly’s defining column was basically an abbreviated blog entry in printed form directed at a slightly older and more square demographic than your average sports blog, with the following week’s Letters to the Editor as the only potential source for commenting. The dichotomy between Reilly and Simmons is one of talent, not of tone!

Here’s another fun fact, in the article above he talks about bloggers not going into locker rooms, and thus being removed from the athletes and dynamics of teams and the game. Reilly writes endlessly about golf, and his favorite athlete is cyclist Lance Armstrong–two sports, in other words, that don’t even have locker rooms.

Reilly is hardly the only old guard journalist to fundamentally misunderstand blogging, the internet, and internet journalism. Many who self-righteously dismiss internet journalism don’t recognize the new generation of sports fans, who get their news primarily from blogs, the internet, and independent media, nor do they understand the dynamics of the modern information age. The fact is many young, savvy readers don’t want their news from staples of the mainstream media. ESPN.com thinks it is competing with Deadspin, et al, but to a large extent it is not (Simmons excluded). In fact, the blogs are competing with each other for those who ESPN lost a long time ago when they chose to abandon their leadership in sports journalism in favor of promoting entertainment, sensationalism, and the lowest common denominator.

The internet is a medium, not a genre. “Internet journalism” is no more descriptive a term than “print journalism.” There seems an inherent disdain for the internet among print journalists, perhaps because the internet can destroy the glass menagerie of journalism as an institution by making it more of a true meritocracy. Regardless, the internet is the most convenient way for many of us to get our news. I work a lot, I can surf the web and read dozens of different sites during the course of my work day, I can read things on my phone on the go, but I can’t bring 20 different magazines and newspapers to work and thumb through them at my leisure. Ironically (a third irony today), while in many ways regular news on the Web is still derivative of print newspapers and magazines, that’s less true of sports than just about any other news category.

Since the boom of the internet, I’ve been able to read more, and hear more voices than I ever have; that’s a good thing. Rick Reilly just doesn’t happen to be one of those voices who’ve earned a piece of my time and mindshare. Sorry, Rick, but don’t blame the supermarket for my opinion that your food product tastes like shit. But then again, shouldn’t that be expected when the producer doesn’t even know which dish he’s actually famous for making?

Posted in digglahhh, journalism, sports | 3 Comments »

Sonic boom

Posted by digglahhh on 17 March 2008

When you think of Seattle, your mind probably conjures up the Space Needle, grunge music, Starbucks, and, in the distance, majestic Mt. Rainier. Starbucks will play a role in what follows, but our topic today is Seattle as a sports city, something you probably didn’t think of right away.

The first measure of a sports city is the devotion of its fans. The Key Arena, home to the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics, is famous for getting so loud that the crowd noise drowns out the public address system. The baseball Mariners had a very nice run in the mid-nineties and are a trendy choice as a sleeper-contender this year. The football Seahawks are only two seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance. They got to the brink of a championship, but the aforementioned Sonics are the only Seattle (male) professional sports franchise to bring one home (’78-79). Such a distinction only makes it that much sadder that NBA Commissioner David Stern, is a willing participant in a cabal to hijack the team and relocate it to Oklahoma City.

I will attempt a brief recounting of the events leading up to this, the key players involved, and the egregious deceit transparent through the process.

The Seattle Sonics were owned, until recently, by Starbucks mogul, Howard Schultz. (This sordid story makes me even prouder that I’ve never consumed a single Starbucks product) In the run up to, and the inaugural stages of, ownership, Schultz made saccharine overtures about his intimate and intrinsic connection with Seattle, and how that should be collateral for proving his pride in, and dedication to, owning the Seattle Sonics. That was 2001.

Barely back from the honeymoon, the relationship turned sour. Schultz has spent considerable time bitching about the terms of the Key Arena’s lease with the city. Admittedly, I’m uneducated as to the specifics of that financial issue, but as wealthy as Schultz is, I have difficulty understanding how much it can affect him. (He dropped out of the Forbes 400 in 2008, but still checks in with a net worth of $1.1B), One Sonics fan characterized Schultz’s behavior as owner as that of a “a spoiled punk kid who’s already bored with his absurdly expensive Christmas present by New Year’s Day.” Schultz sold the team in 2006 for a $150M profit, despite complaining about his inability to make money running the franchise.

Enter Clay Bennett, a wealthy Hall-of-Fame oil tycoon from Oklahoma, new owner of the Seattle franchise. Oklahoma City has been flirting with the NBA for a while; two years ago it was awarded temporary partial custody of the New Orleans Hornets from ’05-’07. Despite the obvious conclusions to be drawn, Bennett commented publicly on numerous occasions about his intent to keep the Sonics in Seattle. It wasn’t long before he changed his tune.

Bennett first began complaining that the Key Arena was inadequate (translation: not enough luxury boxes). This is utter nonsense, especially since the Seattle taxpayers forked $125M to renovate the current arena just twelve years ago! Bennett claimed a satisfactory arena would cost half a billion dollars. Even more nonsensical when you consider of the NBA and NHL arenas costructed in the 90’s the one with the highest estimate on any approved project was less than half Bennett’s figure ($235M for Portland’s Rose Garden)Bennett was clearly shill-bidding in an attempt to contrive an excuse to relocate the team by pitting the taxpayers with an offer they couldn’t accept.

Basically, Bennett is holding the city of Seattle’s beloved pro basketball team ransom, bullying the city’s taxpayers and fans to build a billionaire a new toybox even though he already has a more than adequate one.

Now, you may be asking yourself if an individual can just purchase a team and relocate it as he/she pleases. The answer is, no! I’m sketchy on the actual process by which one is granted permission to relocate a franchise, but an attempt to do so can certainly be thwarted by other owners and/or the Commissioner of the League, currently David Stern.

Did you know that the state of Oklahoma has a Hall of Fame for Oklahomans? Maybe that’s not strange, and other states have Halls of Fame as well – but I certainly chuckled when I found this out. How did I find it out and why am I mentioning it here, you ask. Well, because Bennett was elected to the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 2007… and the induction speech was given by his close personal friend, David fucking Stern!

Do I need to expound on the respective sport market size estimates, and general population figures for Oklahoma City and Seattle? Take a wild guess, and you’ll be in the, ahem, ballpark.

So, what does the NBA have to gain by allowing this relocation? About as much as the Suns did for trading for a broken down Shaquille O’Neal! David Stern is just hooking up his boy – this is like Jay-Z giving Memphis Bleek all his DJ Premier beats. Isn’t it great that you don’t have to get either of the two references in this paragraph, but just learned that the Shaq trade will be a bust, and some guy named “Memphis Bleek” is a shitty rapper (and another guy,“DJ Premier” is a talented producer)… I’m here to inform!

This is pretty “fierce, dangerous, pathetic, fucked up,” to quote a Nirvana lyric (or, “not fierce,” and “a hot-tranny-mess,” to quote Project Runway winner, Christian Siriano) Circumstantially it has the elements of collusion even, right? So why isn’t this a story – how come nobody knows or cares about it? Yeah, I guess because it’s happening in Seattle. Home of flannel, and mocha frappuccino , not sports.

To add insult to injury, although the Sonics have never revisited their 1979 glory, they and their fans can see some light at the end of the tunnel. After some dismal play in recent memory, they landed a future superstar, Kevin Durant, in last year’s draft, shed their bad contracts and stockpiled, through trades, 13 picks in the next three drafts – saving a ton of salary in the process (important because the NBA has a team salary cap). The team would have to hire Isiah Thomas to not be very good in a few years.

Sportswriting godsend, Bill Simmons (a.k.a. the only reason any sentient sports fan should be caught visiting ESPN’s website, and the widely-accredited pioneer of sports blogging) has dedicated two of his famously epic “mailbag” columns to giving a voice to dejected Sonics fans – forty pages worth, after claiming to be necessarily highly selective about which ones to print! He is the only nationally relevant, sports media, heavy-hitter I’ve read/heard talk about this; so, as usual, props to him.

Sports stories always pull my heart strings for some reason; I probably average at least one cry per Real Sports episode. Not surprisingly many of the emails moved me to tears (leading to several strange glances on the subway, the likes of which I haven’t received since the last chapter of Marley and Me). But, thumbing through the columns would be heart-wrenching for anybody. It may be hard for others to imagine, but any true fan knows that losing a team is really like losing part of yourself. Shit, I saw a serious discussion among a group of age 70-ish Brooklynites about going to Cooperstown to protest the induction of Walter O’Malley to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, even though they had to be in their 20s when he pulled the Dodgers from Brooklyn!

One email in the Simmons column was unlike all the others though, and, in truth, I’ve written this whole piece to provide necessary context to quote it in its entirety. It’s an entirely different take on the situation, though the commiseration with the feeling of loss is obvious in its undertones. So, Michael from Boston, have at it:

Seattle deserves our praise, not our pity. The people there should hold their heads high, even if there is a tear in their eye. They were adults — MEN and WOMEN — who held firm when residents of other cities would have childishly voted against their own best interests and capitulated like cowards. Seattle said no to Clay Bennett, and no to his greed. The city grew a steel backbone. Losing the Sonics seems like a small price to pay for collective courage and integrity. We should all be so lucky as to have looked an immoral thing clear in the face, and told it to go screw itself.

It worries me that people wouldn’t write you as many letters if Seattle had voted for the arena and Bennett had elected to stay. People might be so busy cheering they would forget the money that could have gone to schools, the elderly or even back to the taxpayers themselves. It worries me that many probably couldn’t be bothered to notice or care. People seem far more upset by this cost of doing good than they are strengthened by their courage. I wish they weren’t. Our loyalties and values tell us who we are as people, and, in your real life, stepping up to do the right thing for those who matter and count on you is a real brand of caring that you usually can’t find in ballparks or metaphors.

I am a fan. I am grateful that my loyalty to the Celtics is now bearing fruit. However, the ecstasy of sport must not morph into a willful ignorance or a denial of bigger realities, and there are real choices to be made when an owner’s push comes to a city’s shove. Owners are coming for your tax dollars. They have been. On the other side of things, Medicare and Medicaid expenses for the states are growing — they could soon be beyond our ability to cover them. We are fighting two wars and have entered a recession. We live in a time of national challenge. And Clay Bennett wants an arena. Thank you, Seattle, for showing us what caring really is.

The NBA’s community development arm, which calls itself “NBA Cares,” should read that last line carefully. We already know what David Stern really cares about.

Posted in digglahhh, sports | 3 Comments »

Sneaker collecting is dead!

Posted by digglahhh on 9 March 2008

Once an idiosyncratic, almost anthropological pursuit practiced by hip-hop devotees, sports fans, and urban fashion connoisseurs being a “sneakerhead” is now simply about hollow consumerism.

Sneaker manufacturers churn out one low-quality, theme-packed, limited edition gimmick shoe, after another, at unprecedented rates, all the while forgoing attention to detail on the reproduction of retro classics. As is often the case when mainstream producers discover a niche market, the suppliers did a better job of feeding the market before they were fully aware of its existence. Why is it so difficult to understand that the essential beauty of something that arises naturally in the marketplace will only be preserved if it continues to evolve organically?

But this post isn’t really about sneakers, it’s about identifying impending co-optation, exploitation, and death through language and labeling.

It didn’t take much sneaker savvy to see what was going to happen to “the sneaker game” when fourteen year-olds with five pairs, all released this calendar year, started calling themselves “collectors” and the “box-stacking” photo became de rigeur on the (supposedly) urban teen’s Myspace profile. A “collection” isn’t some sort of goal to aspire to; it’s the natural outgrowth (side-effect?) of a passion. And veterans of the sneaker culture don’t refer to themselves as “sneakerheads.” Personally, my relationship with sneakers is a part of larger culture(s) with which I identify. To call myself a “sneakerhead” would be treat the signifier as the signified.

That outsiders, particularly the mainstream media, have a cute little name for a group of people who participate in a lifestyle, is a sure sign that the purity of the community is compromised—a process of erosion that will progress exponentially. It is only a matter of time before you will be gazing at the putrid shell of what was. Shortly after that, you can only curse what your culture has become.

The term “hippie,” in the sense that we understand it now, was coined by a San Francisco journalist in a piece about the Blue Unicorn coffeehouse to refer to the new generation of Haight-Ashbury residents. Within a few years, “hippie” was being widely used by the mainstream press. The Haight-Ashbury residents weren’t calling themselves “hippies.” It wasn’t long until the term gained enough traction that every slacker in search of drugs, sex, music, and fun headed West, destroying the socio-political underpinnings of the lifestyle as it originally existed in the process. Of course, next came the stereotyping, followed by a marketing wave that completed the neutering process.

So beware that cover story in New York magazine or People identifying some group with whom you share a passion. The Nehru jacket will follow soon enough. Meaning, substance, and texture will be replaced by a two-dimensional stereotype subtrate upon which corporate America will culture a hideous market fungus., The edginess of the lifestyle will be turned into soft smooth sides. Salsa becomes onion-flavored ketchup; bagels nothing more than tiny loaves of Wonder Bread with holes in the center. Resist the labeling of your passion. By doing so, you resist definition, and hence pigeonholing, subsequent exploitation and metamorphosis, and ultimately, cultural death.

For the sneaker enthusiasts, we have it easy. We can just hope the fad runs its cycle and soon we can go back to finding classics at remote outlets and mom and pop stores for 30% of retail price. And we can go back to the day when wearing a pair of Nike Air Pressures leads to suspicious looks from the NYPD and being pulled out of the security line at the airport.

Posted in digglahhh, language, pop culture | 8 Comments »

The biggest boozer

Posted by digglahhh on 26 January 2008

The other day I joined my girlfriend while she caught up on some previous episodes of “The Biggest Loser.” Inadvertently, I’ve become a viewer, if not exactly a fan. The episode from three weeks ago (I think) flipped me out. For Entertainment Weekly, three weeks is long enough to make a show entirely irrelevant, but the readership of this website is probably not characterized by those who treat “The Biggest Loser” as must-see-TV (nor devoted readers of Entertainment Weekly, for that matter).

For those unfamiliar with the show, several teams of two grossly overweight individuals are made to live in a house that is like a fitness complex. The trainers, basically upper middle class white drill-sergeants, exude the superiority of their looks and conditioning, and condescendingly whip the fat asses into shape – sometimes engaging in various psychotherapies they are wholly unqualified for along the way. Teams weigh-in weekly, and one or the other of the two to lose the least combined weight is voted off by the other teams. Lame challenges and prizes along the way create artificial drama; because you are, after all, watching a show consisting of obese people struggling on treadmills, its humor wears thin even as the contestants do as well.

In the episode that irked me, what caused me to freak happened toward the end. There was a surprise challenge the night before the weekly weigh-in. The contestants were given some amount of time (maybe five minutes) alone in an area that was filled with. fried meats, corn dogs, cakes, candies— the worst possible shit one could eat. The teams were told that whichever team ate the most calories combined would split $5,000 – but would obviously be jeopardizing themselves at the weigh-in the following day, and thus their chance to win whatever the big payout is.

Should I eat? Will my partner eat? Holy shit – Hitchcock-like suspense…

What is that? If the show has any legitimate goal at all, it’s to help contestants lose weight and develop a healthy life style. How does that square with such a ridiculous and contrived situation? It’s just wrong on basically every possible level.

If pressed, maybe the show’s creators would give willpower development as the reason for the challenge. But, that’s total bullshit. The challenge does not accurately depict any realistic situation the contestants will ever encounter. Lacking the discipline to avoid impromptu eating contests for cash prizes is probably not the main reason the contestants have failed to develop a healthy relationship with food thus far.

Willpower is a valuable skill that anybody attempting to kick a habit or change a lifestyle should try to develop. But, consider that the unhealthy diets and eating routines these contestants have developed have been practiced over many years. Their behavior is a long established pathology similar to that of a drug addict. Would a show about (recovering) alcoholics throw them in a room with an open bar and offer a cash prize for the team that emptied the most bottles the quickest? Entertainment and plot twists are one thing; completely undermining the professed goals of the show and contestants is another.

Further, the cash prize interjects a new level of bias to the equation. How important five grand is to you directly influences your temptation factor. Shit, I’d eat a plate of bull penis, or whatever the Fear Factor special of the day is for a couple thousand bucks. But, I’m relatively broke! If I was pulling down A-Rod money, I wouldn’t take a single bite – well, maybe if it was imported and served in some sort of reduction… The point is, the more broke you are, the more likely you are going to eat. There’s no reason to introduce an extra, unrelated variable.

Basically, the show was willing to contradict its single concrete premise in the hopes of getting a couple of minutes of good, gross-out TV out of it. Fortunately, the joke was on the network as very few of the contestants ate anything at all. Still, the damage was done in my eyes. I’m under no delusions about the altruism of these sorts of self-help themed reality shows, but that was really jumping the shark as far as I’m concerned.

By the way, the winning team of the eat-off also wound up losing the second most weight. So bonus points for promoting irresponsible and contradictory messaging as well…

Posted in digglahhh, food, pop culture | 1 Comment »

Time is money – except when it’s not

Posted by digglahhh on 16 January 2008

Time is money. The cliché stems from the world of per-hour labor, but in a more metaphysical sense as well, time is the “currency” of our lives. We have social obligations to spend time with people in our lives along with our professional obligations to our employers. Much as our bills await our paychecks, most of our time is already spoken for in advance. We all have endeavors, mundane and illustrious, we’d like to undertake… time permitting.

Perhaps the above was a grandiose introduction for the question I plan to pose. Money is not the only thing we trade time for. How do we determine what a minute is worth in comparison to some abstract concept, like comfort or convenience? We don’t break these “transactions” down into a mathematical formula. Any putative formula needs to be constantly tweaked by an infinite set of variables.

Here is a simple dynamic many New Yorkers can relate to. (Car commuters face similar choices.) I live in Queens and work in downtown Manhattan. There are various combinations of trains I can take to and from work. By strategically switching between local and express trains, I can make it to work in about 35 minutes of subway time. This would involve taking three different trains, each of which is inevitably very crowded. I have almost no chance of having a seat at any time on the trip. Instead, I usually take the local all the way. I have about a 50% chance of getting a seat from the beginning and at least an 80% chance of having a seat for at least half of the trip. This trip keeps me on the train for about 50 minutes.

Raw-time-wise, I’m sacrificing 15 minutes for a seat. Percentage-wise, I’m accepting an approximately 40% longer trip for a seat. I’ve often asked myself what the tipping point is; at what set of respective durations would I choose the uncomfortable ride?

Surely, there are too many variables to pin this down to a strict, “when difference is greater than X, I take uncomfortable route” axiom. If I’m running late, and I have an early morning conference call, I really have no choice. If I’m supposed to meet a friend for dinner and I get stuck fifteen minutes late at the office, once again I have no choice. There are varying degrees of obligation that cause one to reassess the choice.

I’m fascinated to think that these types of decisions are rarely micro-analyzed, at least fully consciously, yet, people make these time vs. comfort decisions all the time. Elevator on sixth floor, I’m on first floor and have to go to the second floor – wait, or take the stairs?

As complex as these decisions are, we rarely shy from assessing the ones other people make. Have you ever been in a car with somebody else who keeps passing over parking spaces you think are reasonable distances from your destination, in order to get closer and you begin to think to yourself, “Geez, what a lazy ass this guy is.”

We never really try to pin down the exact formula, maybe because we just don’t know. In objective terms, 40% longer seems like a substantial sacrifice, substantial enough that I would decide against it. In reality, it’s a no-brainer the other way. Like so many social experiments, analyzing this behavior makes me think how unpredictable my behavior is, even to myself.

What does it say about me, that I’m the type of guy for whom a seat on the subway is worth 15 minutes of commute time? After all, that’s fifteen fewer minutes I have to spend with my girlfriend, fifteen minutes later I’ll eat dinner, ten fewer baskets I’ll see the Knicks’ opponent score – two fewer I’ll see the Knicks score… On the other hand, if I’m in the middle of a good novel, the fifteen minutes would be similarly spent on the living room couch, so there’s hardly any trade-off at all. Maybe it says nothing at all about me; maybe the very complexity of the decision process immunizes me from your harsh judgments.

Posted in digglahhh, Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

Why can’t the invisible hand claim sets?

Posted by digglahhh on 8 September 2007

This is old news. I intended to address it last week, but did not get around to it.

From the AP:

NEW YORK — A lineup of team logo baseball caps denounced as tailor-made for gang members was ordered removed from store shelves by its manufacturer Friday after complaints from baseball officials.
“It has been brought to our attention that some combinations of icons and colors on a select number of our caps could be too closely perceived to be in association with gangs,” said Christopher H. Koch, CEO of New Era Cap. “In response, we, along with Major League Baseball, have pulled those caps.”
…Both MLB and the Yankees insisted they were unaware of the symbolism in the cap designs, with the New York team noting they were never given a chance to review the new hats until they were already for sale.
…New Era said it would increase its efforts to ensure it had a better working knowledge of gang symbols, names and locations.

The black and gold hat with the crown perched atop the NY is the real nail in the coffin here. The bandana print of the other two is relatively common, and if New Era produced that design in additional colors, beyond red and blue, they may have had a chance at pleading ignorance. But we are supposed to believe that by sheer chance the company selected a color combination that happens to be the colors of one of the most famous gangs in the world, and randomly decided to adorn an appropriate symbol that has no relation to baseball? Oh yeah, and they chose the team that plays in the city where the gang is most prominent. That’s an extraordinary set of coincidences that could only be possible if their Marketing Director was Larry David.

By consumer choice, New Era has a virtual monopoly on the fitted hat industry. Personally, I’m a hat junkie, owning probably upwards of forty New Eras (working for Major League Baseball was a blessing and curse there). For them to plead ignorance here is simply an insult to our intelligence. Are we to believe that they don’t do extensive market research targeting the urban teens and young adults? Really? So, New Era has done hat collaborations with, Wu Tang Clan, and Dip Set, they have put out hats inspired by a relatively obscure (but awesome) Jay-Z song, but they know nothing at all about gang colors or symbolism? Well, if Larry David is their Marketing Director, Dick Cheney must handle their public relations… By the way, the first hit when you search on “black gold gang colors” is to a sociology-style page describing the Latin Kings.

Scope: Primarily metropolitan areas throughout Connecticut, Chicago and New York

Gang Colors: Black and gold. Black represents death, gold represents life.

But here’s the thing, our consumer culture is hardly characterized by socially responsible marketing, so who cares if they did put out these products – even if they did so with the intent of cashing in on the glamourization of the gang lifestyle? We market radar detectors to speeders. Myriad companies use graffiti motifs to appeal to urban demographics. Our cosmetic, diet, fashion, and alcohol industries play on our insecurities to cash in at the detriment of our physical and emotional health. Let’s get real here, is selling gang-inspired fashion a uniquely irresponsible or distasteful offense? If so, why haven’t we gone after the freaking bandana manufacturers?… If the Yankees disapprove of their logo being used that way, so be it. But, let’s not pretend that a network that calls itself “Arts and Entertainment” didn’t air a reality show called “Growing up Gotti!” The Gotti boys were pretty fond of wearing Yankee hats, by the way.

I don’t necessarily endorse the products, but this is free market capitalism, no? Wouldn’t this be a pet case for the conservative libertarians who rage about political correctness neutering our country? Some people may be offended at the invisible hand throwing gang signs, but is that really a legitimate reason to stop the voluntary flow of consumer goods? When did we start giving a fuck about what our consumer actions say about our culture? Disapproving of this product is certainly rational, but it seems unfair to single New Era out for this.

Posted in digglahhh, pop culture, sports | 4 Comments »

Throwing Marbury to the dogs

Posted by digglahhh on 1 September 2007

I want to address two comments about the Michael Vick incident that provoked much controversy and discussion. In reaction to the public’s response to Vick’s participation in a dogfighting ring, New York Knicks pointguard, Stephon Marbury made news by making the following statement.

“I think it’s tough, I think, you know, we don’t say anything about people who shoot deer or shoot other animals. You know, from what I hear, dogfighting is a sport. It’s just behind closed doors.”

First of all, the context of this quote was manipulated and many outlets just ran the “dogfighting is a sport” part. As a result, Marbury was portrayed as a supporter of Vick, or worse, of dogfighting. Given the media’s troubled relationship with Marbury, that was hardly a surprise. Marbury may not be the most eloquent speaker, but if you unpack his comments, there’s something that merits serious consideration.

It is important to note that Marbury did not claim that he believed that dogfighting is a sport. At least that’s not the way I interpreted his comment. If his intent was to proclaim dogfighitng as a sport, there would be no need to preface that opinion with the qualifier, “from what I hear.” Marbury was basically claiming that those involved in dogfighting see it as a sport. Assuredly, it is not, and as a defense for the Vick’s actions, claiming the participants view it as a sport is entirely irrelevant. Perhaps, gang members view drive-by shooting as a sport… I address this part of the quote only to establish that Marbury is not, as the media seemed to portray, supporting dogfighting or claiming it to be a “sport.”

The first part of the quote is interesting. One could interpret it as an implicit defense of Vick, or just as a general comment regarding society, double standards, and the context of Vick’s actions. As a defense of Vick, it would be the classic example of two wrongs not equaling a right, but on its own terms the comment has merit. There are many sets of standards by which society judges the infringement upon animal rights. Marbury’s example of hunting is probably the closest parallel to dogfighting. For one, a substantial segment of the population, even beyond hunters themselves, consider hunting to be a sport, or at least a sports-like activity. Assuredly, hunting is no more of a sport than dogfighting… or drive-by shooting. Still, there are hundreds of professional athletes who are avowed hunters, yet that hasn’t been seen as anything of a moral issue for professional sports leagues at all, despite strong efforts of anti-hunting activists in our country. One simple and logically consistent argument holds that the slaughter of animals for sport is immoral, period.

As you progress further along the spectrum of animal rights activism more issues arise. It might be easier to count the number of professional athletes who don’t own mink coats than the ones who do. At the fringes of the animal rights spectrum we encounter those who feel that a vegan diet is a moral responsibility, specifically for animal cruelty reasons. For society at large, some of these opinions seem to fall squarely in the arena of personal choice, as opposed to moral responsibility. It would be absurd for the NFL to mandate vegan diets for its players, but would it be inconceivable to voice a disapproval of hunting? Of, course, the fallback position is that hunting is legal, while dogfighting is illegal. Most people skirt these difficult debates by using legality as a moral loophole – as if our society has never legalized clearly immoral behavior…

At the very least, the isolation of and disproportionate public response to the Michael Vick situation, as compared to other animal rights issues, is evidence of the obvious tunnel vision through which we perceive the underlying morality issues of this case. And in that sense, Marbury’s point is correct.

The second comment I’d like to address was made by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter, Paul Zeise. It was made on a sports roundtable discussion show, aired on a CBS affiliate, about a month ago – Zeise was not invited back to the show.

“It’s really a sad day in this country when somehow … Michael Vick would have been better off raping a woman if you look at the outcry of what happened. Had he done that, he probably would have been suspended for four games and he’d be back on the field. But because this has become a political issue, all of a sudden the commissioner has lost his stomach for it.”

I’m not going to defend this guy anymore than to say that it seemed as if he was speaking solely in terms of Vick’s football career. He did not say that rape was a less disgusting act than dogfighting. The fact is that Vick would have had a greater likelihood of settling out of court, or beating the case altogether were he to be accused of rape. That seems like a pretty grounded assessment of the situation given the outcry against Vick, compared with the record of athletes accused of various levels of sexual misconduct who have either walked or simply cut a check.

Zeise isn’t the only person to make this type of comment; this argument has been used in many slightly different forms, they all revolve around the claim that we are making too much of this because there are other, worse, evils going on in the world. That argument is terribly problematic.

Its initial hypocrisy is that there are always news stories that dominate the headlines, despite their scope being undeserving of the coverage. If these people are truly crying out for responsible news coverage that reflects the importance of the event, they’d be kicking and screaming everyday. Britney Spears has received exponentially more news coverage than Darfur. The selective application of this argument leads me to believe that it is disingenuous. But, let’s even assume for a second that it is not – there are several other grounds on which it fails.

The fact that other, more profound, wrongs exist does not preclude people from taking action and judging the said behavior as wrong. One can’t beat a misdemeanor by citing the extent of felonies committed. The perspective endorsed by the above argument ultimately leads to having to arbitrarily choose a specific degree of wrong at which the public, the authorities, or whoever, should begin to give a shit. Individually, one can certainly feel as if too much has been made of the case, but invoking a subjective, slippery slope argument as a standard to measure responsible collective behavior doesn’t seem like a legitimate criticism. In fact, ironically, it was this perspective that caused authorities to let dogfighting continue, virtually unabated, all this time.

Additionally, this is an apples to oranges comparison. There are many reasons why this issue pulls at people’s heartstrings, and galvanizes them to protest, making the dynamic of this scandal more complicated than an immorality pissing contest.. First and foremost, this is a type of scandal and depravity that is unfamiliar to the public; the shock-factor is huge. More subtlety, the comparison of “rape” is something of a strawman in this context. When a reporter says that Vick would have been better off raping a woman, the image we get is of a seedy character huddled in an alley waiting to snatch a victim and force sex upon her at the explicit threat of violence. This is not the “rape” that we are used to seeing athletes accused of.

Most cases involving rape and other forms of sexual misconduct involve aggressive coercion or fuzzy consent. We are less likely to vilify a celebrity who is accused of rape than we are of dogfighting because of the relative ambiguity of the nature of the indiscretion. We have seen money-hungry groupies disingenuously file lawsuits; we have seen people throw themselves at celebrities. We’ve seen the interminable confusion of the Duke athletes case. We’ve seen tell-all books by individuals whose identities were based around sleeping with as many athletes as possible. Simply put, it is conceivable and precedented that rape allegations could be false, disingenuous, or even a matter of miscommunication; one can understand how a celebrity may find him/herself in such a situation. Zeise’s critics are thinking of rape in the police sketch on the local news sense of the word, when he in fact meant that Michael Vick may have been better off, in strictly pragmatic terms, if he was accused of date-rape by a cheerleader.

You can kill a man in cold blood, so long as it’s done in a boxing ring. Rape is a code word for completely unacceptable conduct, and yet day-to-day life is not nearly so black-and-white. Dogfighitng, on the other hand, is a sadistic and foreign behavior; it is not something we civilized people can understand or fathom an appreciation of, or desire to participate in, even in the theoretical, or abstract. Dogs are cute and innocent; people can be cruel and manipulative. It’s pretty simple really. Of course, the blanket statement that human emotion need not follow some sort of linear reaction pattern that mirrors some sort of “objective reality” about what is reacting to, is also relevant to this discussion.

I find it hard to believe that arguments like Zeise’s can be taken as anything more than rhetorical or quizzical. And, I find it all too convenient to simply twist and dismiss comments like Marbury’s.

Posted in animal-rights, digglahhh, journalism, language, pop culture, sports | 10 Comments »

Apples to elephants

Posted by digglahhh on 25 August 2007

To only Dick Cheney’s surprise, Fox News’s answer to The Daily Show, The ½ Hour News Hour has been cancelled. The show’s last episode is set to air on September 16th. I can’t speak about the quality of the show, as I have only seen about half of a single episode. Many lefty blogs claimed that the show was unfunny, uncreative and not entertaining, strange since conservatives are known for their incredible senses of humor and lefty blogger are known for their sense of objectivity. Anyway, the little bit that I caught didn’t seem to be any worse than the vast majority of other comedy shows I’ve stumble upon, up and down the dial.

Regardless of its comedic value, or lack thereof, the fact that this showed aired on Fox News was an affront to news networks as a form of journalism. Even one who agrees with the underlying views of the show should find it improper, distasteful, and debasing to a news network. While marketed as an antidote to The Daily Show, and a response to the alleged uproar calling for conservative satire, the key difference here is that The Daily Show is aired on Comedy Central. Couldn’t Murdoch or any of his higher-ups just broadcast this show on one of the other dozens of channels owned under the Fox umbrella? Perhaps one not devoted to airing actual news…

Conservatives constantly charge the media with being biased toward the liberals. “The liberal media” has even become something of an accepted phrase. But, “the liberal media” has never resorted to broadcasting a show on a news network that undermines the idea of exclusively news-based content in order to mock their political opponents. The airing of this show was the most explicitly partisan-biased stance I’ve ever seen a news network take.

Jon Stewart often finds himself in the middle of these apples-to-oranges comparisons. On that now famous appearance on Crossfire, Stewart had to remind Tucker Carlson (who was grilling Stewart for not asking John Kerry hard-enough hitting questions) that the name of his network had the word “comedy” in it and that the show preceding his was “puppets making crank phone calls.”

The comparison is invidious anyway; Stewart is not nearly as partisan as Fox’s reaction show seemed to be. There is little, if any, chance that The Daily Show morphs into a continuous coronation ceremony for the Dems if they take the office in 2008. The systemic absurdity of our political culture is fully bipartisan, after all, and what comic deliberately cuts his potential material in half?

Somehow, criticizing the system has become an act branded as liberal. That raises two points. One, it follows that corrupting that system is part of the conservative agenda. If raising issues about, and calling for investigations into, say, vote count accuracy is “liberal, then, by extension, is disregard for vote-count accuracy and election transparency conservative? Those who make such accusations of The Daily Show rarely consider the implications about their positions that come from the creation of a dichotomy.

Two, what does it say about the political make-up of the media itself, that something like The Daily Show can be branded so blatantly leftist? Would a media comprised mainly of wingnut lefties (as the right likes to imply) consider a relatively rational and subdued comedy show to be stark, raving leftist? Do you know any real lefties watch this show and marvel at how progressive it is? Of course, not! Now, would The Daily Show appear that way, by contrast, to one whose internal political compass was calibrated way toward the right? Probably. Where along the political spectrum is the “center” if a show like The Daily Show registers way left of that center?

Let me spell it out for you; the media is so heavily controlled by the right that they have been able to successfully convince people that the industry is controlled by the left. We have been told that The New York Times is a leftist institution. Yeah, compared to The Heritage Foundation

The people who accuse the media of liberal bias don’t see anything wrong with airing a Dem-bashing satire on a news network to offer a rebuttal to a moderate satire aired on a comedy network. Trying to kill an ant with a sledgehammer, huh… What party does that remind you of? Still not sure, well let me remind you that the show’s cancellation is confirmation that the ants are once again outsmarting the sledgehammer’s wielder.

Posted in digglahhh, journalism, politics, pop culture | Leave a Comment »

Semantics 756

Posted by digglahhh on 10 August 2007

Okay, so Barry Bonds launched 756 off Mike Bacsik this week. I only mention Bascik’s name to relay the fun fact that Bacsik’s father, of the same name, actually faced Hank Aaron when Aaron had 755 career homers. Also, Clay Hensley, the pitcher who gave number 755 had failed a steroid test when he was in the Minor Leagues. Looks like there was some fate at work, or something. But, anyway, enough of the fun facts and onto the dissection of language.

Throughout this whole debacle, we’ve constantly heard the following words, “(un)ethical,” “(il)legitimate,” “(im)moral,” “(il)legal,” and “cheating (or not).” Many people throw forms of these words around as if they are interchangeable. In fact, they are not. Let’s go through how they relate to the Bonds situation.

“Legitimate” is the simplest of these terms to deal with. Barry Bonds hit (as of today) 757 fair balls over the outfield fences of various Major League ballparks during regular season play. None of the homeruns were fake, or recorded as the result of a clerical error or anything like that. Legitimacy pertains to MLB’s abilities to void the record, and to whether those which were labeled as homeruns really were. The record is “legitimate.”

Next, we have a nexus of similar terms. Let’s get rid of a couple to simplify things. Some people don’t distinguish morality and ethics at all, if so, we can drop the one in favor of the other. To the extent they’re different, morality pertains to your personal views regarding the means by which Bonds has been aided in his achievement of the record, independent of the user or purpose. Personal views are interesting, but not really important.

Then too, one may think that the use of anabolic steroids is immoral because it is illegal. Fine. We’ll turn to the question of legality in a minute.

Cheating and ethics are the two most closely related and tricky terms here. I’m going to collapse them, because cheating is something that seems to have an inherently unethical component. The act of cheating is defined by dishonesty, so it is almost always unethical. I say almost always because an action that is normally unethical can be rendered not so, provided that performing the said action opposes larger or greater unethical behavior. This is the “if you had a chance to kill Hitler argument.” If Barry Bonds was cheating, then his actions were unethical, unless you can argue that he was cheating to right some greater form of wrong.

The above preamble is necessary because of the complications involved in establishing Bonds’s cheating, and its extent. Some try to separate the cheating and the ethics, other than my above explanation, I don’t see how you can really do that. But, here is how people try.

Steroids were not explicitly disallowed by Major League Baseball prior to 2002. Subsequently there has been testing; Bonds has not failed a steroid test (undetectables, I know – but speculation is not evidence). Some argue that if Bonds used, pre-2002, he was not cheating because it was not against the rules, and there wasn’t anything unethical about it because it was not cheating.

That steroids weren’t banned until 2002 is an important point, but it doesn’t absolve Bonds of the charge of cheating. It gets Bonds off the hook on the question of the illegality of his actions – according to MLB, at least. (see, I said I’d come back to that).

But breaking the explicitly stated rules is way too strict an interpretation of cheating. Laws and rules have “spirits,” anybody whose read any of the more famous court cases in this country’s judicial history knows that. Cheating, in terms of this debate, is using disingenuous methods to undermine the spirit of fair competition. This covers loopholes that involved parties would consider cheating (like PEDs), but may spare tactics that some might consider “dirty,” but are not explicitly forbidden, provided the practice is accepted by the participants (e.g. stealing signs). Kind of like the “reasonable citizen” standard…

My characterization merges the cheating and the ethics issue by defining cheating in a sense that considers ethics. Perhaps I need a further argument that Bonds’ cheating was unethical. Okay then, here’s one.

Let’s consider the implications of Bonds’s actions, that is, what they did to the competitive spirit of the game. Those who achieved artificial enhancements from drug use skewed the game to give themselves unfair advantages and they were not forthcoming about it. The fact that they were not banned by the sport doesn’t matter, they contradict the notion of fair competition. They are dangerous, one can’t expect any “reasonable player” to be willing to engage in that practice. That solves the problem of those who claim that Lasik eye surgery, Tommy John surgery and such are unnatural means to enhance one’s abilities. Most importantly, ethics are not defined by the law – specifically, legal loopholes or ambiguities are not ethical loopholes.

So, the highlights/box score:

Record legit? Yes.

Bonds a cheater? Yes.

Means used to help reach the record ethical? No.

Posted in digglahhh, language, sports | 2 Comments »

Support our troops?

Posted by digglahhh on 28 July 2007

Recently, I’ve read numerous pieces about what it means to support our troops. The GOP fringe likes to make the argument that one can’t support the troops while being against the war. Their contention is that the troops are fighting to win and supporting legislation that would undercut their mission is, by definition, non-supportive of the troops. The anti-war crowd is quick to point out that approval of a mission is not a necessary precondition of supporting those who undertake that mission – a hate the sin, love the sinner type of argument. They also claim that truly supporting our troops would mean working to prevent them from dying needlessly in a war of choice.

I think it is time that we lefties confronted some very difficult realities that are associated with our position. There is a sense of validity to the fringe righty argument here. But, I’d like to flip it on its head and note that, on a certain level, supporting the engaged troops is supporting the war. Truly supporting the troops begins before enlistment, before our “support” puts us in a difficult position in which we have to support those who are fighting wars of choice that line the pockets of our ruling class and spill the blood of innocent civilians in the name of “freedom” and “anti-terrorism.” The troops are the soldiers of neo-colonialism and economic imperialism. Yet, because we view them as pawns who don’t control their own destinies we are driven by empathy to support them.

Wars are carried out by troops. Troops don’t have the authority to make decisions regarding entry and they don’t choose their missions or their means, but they do perform the grunt work of war. If we believe that Iraq did not deserve to be attacked, that we are involved in a colonialist/imperialist occupation, and that we are slaughtering Iraqi soldiers, women, and children needlessly and in startling numbers, then we have to confront the fact that it is the soldiers who are attacking, occupying, and killing.

To be sure, such an operation is not what those who enlisted in the military signed up for. But the fact that they might be called upon in this way should not come as a surprise. The United States has a long and ugly history of using its military for unethical, selfish, and destructive purposes – both in terms of “public” ops – like this one, as well as countless documented black-ops missions. For anyone who knows even a little bit about the military history of the United States—and if you’re going to devote two or five years of your life to it, it’s worth 10 minutes with your friend Google—the current occupation of Iraq would be just the type of thing that one would realize he or she is signing up for when joining the military.

Our military is disproportionately young, poor, and brown. Our poor and disenfranchised are sent off to sacrifice, and potentially die, to preserve the entitlements of wealth for a select few of our American aristocrat class. Those poor, young soldiers who put their lives on the line do so for reasons for reasons dictated by circumstance. Simply, they are not given many other options. They have been failed financially, and socially – sometimes by coincidence and others by malevolence. They have been systematically failed by our educational system, so jingoistic rhetoric resonates with them and a comprehensive, international perspective of our country’s history never has the opportunity to prompt tough moral questions about “what they are enlisting for.”

I don’t support the troops as much as I empathize with them. They have been manipulated to do the bidding of those who care not whether they live or die.

The military offers many of our soldiers the best health care they can get, the best salaries, the best job training. If we want to support our troops, the first thing we need to do is make sure there are comparable civilian jobs, universal health care, education, and training available to them. If they then still want to trade their blood for oil for all of us, at least it will have been an honest choice, independent of pressing economic need.

In terms of supporting troops, the Iraqi troops have the higher moral ground. They truly can believe they are fighting for patriotic freedom. Granting our troops ignorance or naïveté to the true pretenses that precipitate their situation does not change the moral standing of the pretenses themselves or the acts carried out in pursuit thereof. We can offer only explanations, not excuses.

I “support” all parties thrust into this nightmare against their will; that includes soldiers on both sides, Iraqi civilians, families of the troops, anti-war protestors, and international diplomats. I have nothing but ill will for those who knowingly escalated this situation, disingenuously, for their own purposes or those who jumped into the fray out of hate or fear.

As long as our troops take orders from selfish, immoral cowards who don’t value domestic or foreign life as much as the accoutrements of wealth and power, they will continue to be called on to commit atrocities on their behalf. Pleading ignorance or trickery will never reverse any of them. The actions of our troops, even their victories—especially their victories—further embolden our ruling class. They pave the way for further exploitation in the name of “freedom.”

So let’s truly support our troops so that they don’t have to become troops. Let the rulers of this country go out there on the battlefield and put their own asses on the line for the government contracts, manipulated markets, and installation of governments that they need to continue living their MTV Cribs lifestyles. If the ranks of the military was filled with the Bill Kristols and Rush Limbaughs of the world, or at least their children, then we could sit back and root for the good guys with a clear conscience.

Posted in digglahhh, politics | 7 Comments »

More on race and sports

Posted by digglahhh on 21 July 2007

During a recent discussion about race and the perceptions of athletic success, my friend Tony over at Baseball-fever reminded me of this 2003 poll of 550 Major Leaguers, taken by Sports Illustrated.

The two questions that I found most intriguing were the following:

5. Who gets the most from the least talent?

David Eckstein, Angels 62.2%
Craig Counsell, Diamondbacks 6.7%
Jamie Moyer, Mariners 4.8%
Joe McEwing, Mets 2.7%
Kevin Millar, Red Sox 1.7%
Juan Pierre, Marlins 1.2%
Albert Pujols, Cardinals 1.0%
Brad Ausmus, Astros 1.0%
Eric Byrnes, Athletics 0.7%
Greg Maddux, Braves 0.7%
Mike Sweeney, Royals 0.7%

6. Who gets the least from the most talent?

Ruben Rivera, Giants 29.3%
Raul Mondesi, Yankees 6.9%
Frank Thomas, White Sox 3.1%
Mo Vaughn, Mets 3.1%
Adrian Beltre, Dodgers 2.8%
Kyle Farnsworth, Cubs 2.8%
Ken Griffey, Reds 2.4%
Aramis Ramirez, Pirates 2.1%
Esteban Loaiza, White Sox 2.1%
Juan Gonzalez, Rangers 2.1%
Jose Guillen, Reds 2.1%

*If you are interested in reading a little more about the players, and my attempt at an objective evaluation of whether the players were good choices for the respective lists, see the comments section.

Eight of the top ten responses to the first question, including the overwhelming first choice, are white players. Minority players account for nine out of ten of the top vote-getters in the second, including the top choice.

Other observations:

· Six of the players on the top list are not only white, but blond.

· Skinny guys always hustle? The average height and weight of the top list is certainly lower than that of the bottom list.

· Most fans would agree that the players on the top list, on a whole, show more “enthusiasm” when playing the game than those on the bottom list.

· As of the time of the poll, three players on the bottom list were former MVPs (Griffey, Gonzalez [2x], Thomas [2x]). Players on the top list had won none, though Maddux has won four Cy Youngs.

· As of the time of the poll, players on the second list had nearly twice as many All Star appearances, 23 to 12.

I could write about how different skills are perceived as bearing a greater relationship to natural abilities while others are understood as being the products of hard work and study. But, that skirts the issue and distracts from the point.

Such a proposition is a chicken and egg argument as it passes through a racial filter. Virtually all events on a baseball field require a mix of athleticism and natural talents and abilities. Athleticism plays the smallest role in baseball of any of the major sports. In fact, the core component of the game, hitting, is largely a function of hand-eye coordination. All players who play the game are naturally gifted and methodically trained. Whether skills are considered “natural” or “developed” is a false dichotomy that has as much to do with who possesses specific skills as it does with some sort of theoretical essence of that skill.

Years ago, future NBA Hall of Famer and gangsta-rapper look-alike Allen Iverson was chastised for taking practice too lightly. His original press conference tirade was memorable, because it is played over and over. The line that he repeats repeatedly is, “Practice, we talking about practice – not a game, not a game – practice.” That remark made people think of him as lazy and undedicated. The caveat to that remark is not replayed ad nauseam. Iverson went on to ask if it is logical to assume that a player of his caliber could achieve such a level of play without being intensely dedicated to practice. A perfectly reasonable question and self-evident truism. It is well known that Allen Iverson played as hard as anybody in league – many said he played harder than any other player. He is undersized, underweight; his body took more punishment than any other player’s. He is one of the best scorers in the history of the NBA, a former MVP – an immortal. To assert that he didn’t value practice, or was lazy, was absolutely ludicrous in the face of his game and his accomplishments.

These pronouncements are often based on personality, on disposition and appearance. We are talking about quantifying the difference between a group of people who are all anomalies on an individual basis – both in terms of their gifts and their dedication. Iverson did lead the league in tattoos, and was one of, if not the first NBA player to sport cornrows. He also dabbled in a second career as a rapper, projecting a general thug-like image.

Once again, we see implicit racial associations at play. And, once again, we deny their existence by propagating false dichotomies and overstating our abilities to perceive differences in immeasurable, yet largely similar, quantities of vague and arbitrary ideas, like “natural talent” and “dedication.” Furthermore, it is likely that the arbitrary definitions are tainted by inherently racialized perceptions and thought patterns.

Posted in digglahhh, language, sports | 3 Comments »

Nathan could be worse

Posted by digglahhh on 14 July 2007

I’m not often at a loss for words, but certain things set off so many sociological censors at once that I get sent into overload and find it difficult to process and document my interpretation of what exactly is going on. I most recently had one of those moments on July 4th, watching the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. I can’t guarantee coherence as I try to express my feelings here, but I shall try my best.

First of all, it is aired on ESPN. What the fuck is that? I guess that’s the “E” for “Entertainment” portion of its abbreviation. If so, whatever. But then, somebody should tell the Sportscenter anchors that the network’s feeble entertainment attempts have been covered and they can kill the Last Comic Standing auditions and just let me know if J.J. Hardy is going to turn back into a pumpkin anytime soon. Still, even the “entertainment” must be required to be at least as close to a sport as poker is, right? How far removed is a hot dog eating contest from a farting contest? Would they air one of those on ESPN as well? The participants actually view themselves as athletes, as I understand. I’m really trying to limit how many times I say, “what the fuck?” in this piece, but that is asking a lot of restraint given this topic.

Okay, whew, that’s one rant down – the least important one. The subject of what is a sport, what is a game, and what is just a competition is an incredibly interesting discussion, but it’s not all that important sociologically. Let’s get to the more disturbing aspects of this event.

The hour of coverage began with an aerial shot of the crowd. There were thousands of people there. It was absolutely ridiculous. Why would somebody spend one of the few Federal holidays standing under the brutally hot sun, squinting to watch a crew of gastrointestinal anomalies cram their faces with cylindrical beef byproducts from two and a half blocks away?

Onto the depressing symbolism and deconstruction of the event. First, I want to preface this by saying that I’ve always found displays of decadence that use food to be particularly egregious, and, on a certain level, very offensive. Food is the basic unit of sustenance. I often think about how we use food as decorative garnish for other foods and find it quite curious. Last time Meta and I went for dinner, I posed the question of whether it is ethical, apart from being socially acceptable, to bring a child to a nice restaurant.

The hot dog eating contest on July 4th is ironic, or disturbingly a propos on many levels. For starters, according to the CDC, 65% of our population is overweight or obese. Our country clearly has a problem in this regard, and on a day on which we are supposed to be honoring our nation, we are indulging in its problems – in a far more grandiose and blatant fashion than simply stuffing yourself at a barbeque, which at least doesn’t have thousands of onlookers.

In a broader sense, this competition is reflective of so many more of our ugly values. Our disease of conspicuous consumption applies as much to dollar sign as to the waistline. The general international interpretation of American displays of wealth, power, and machismo is that they are crass and childish – two words that aptly describe a nationally televised hot dog eating contest, and a nation that watches it.

Absurd gender identities are at play as well. There is no doubt that a contributing factor to our ballooning of men’s waistlines is the conflation of a (destructively) large appetite with “manliness.” This unrefined image of savage, pseudo-manhood is celebrated as the competitors (all male, except one) gorge themselves.

This event is the apotheosis of our reverence for tasteless and destructive celebrations of excess. The fact that an event like this can gain the traction to solidify itself as an Independence Day tradition is disgusting and disappointing.

I’m hoping that the readership can advance these ideas, or contribute their own, as I find it difficult to fully express why the relationship between Independence Day and the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is so disturbing. Am I the only one who feels this way?

Before I officially solicit any responses, allow me to make two disclaimers. One, I am not a vegan or vegetarian. Admittedly, a fruit salad eating contest would be less disgusting to me, but much of that is due to how much less symbolic value it has than the malt liquor of meat, the hot dog.

Two, I am not opposed to low culture, or even to unhealthy behavior in a competitive form. Most of my friends are in their late twenties to early thirties, well removed from college, and we still routinely play drinking games. Full disclosure: about three months ago, a long night of drinking and cards turned into a three-way White Castle eat-off. (I was not involved in the contest.) My offense is taken at the nexus of the hot dog eating contest, Fourth of July, avid bystanders, and a national television network. This is not a homemade video of a keg stand posted on You Tube. This is competitive artery clogging, recognized and promoted as sport, broadcast on ESPN and marketed as all-American.

Posted in digglahhh, food, pop culture, sports | 8 Comments »

Summer reading

Posted by digglahhh on 7 July 2007

This week, I want to take some time to talk about two great books I’ve recently read. The first is about hip-hop, the second about sports.

Over the last few years, documenting the rise of hip-hop culture has become an increasingly popular subject to write about. I’ve read bits and pieces of many of books similar to this one, and I’ve dismissed even more by scanning the indexes and noticing the omissions of seminal figures. Remarkably, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation (2005) by Jeff Chang avoids such limitations.

Chang’s book, a study in cultural anthropology, domestic and foreign policy and sociology, documents the origin and evolution of the hip-hop lifestyle, aesthetic, and music, all in context. He considers the political and cultural movements in Jamaica, the landscape of the Bronx gangs in the 1970’s, the growth and fracturing of the Black Panther party (through COINTELPRO) and the resulting emergence of the West Coast gang scene. He even describes the economic and geospatial ramifications of Robert Moses’s highway projects. These events and many others are discussed in terms of their role in the emergence and direction of hip-hop.

Chang also does a great job of framing some of the most important frictions within the culture. Although hip-hop is widespread and diverse, there have always been identity crises about what is actually encompassed in the culture, and what is the purpose of the movement. Does Basquiat count as a graffiti artist, since he never hit a subway train (even as “SAMO”)? Is graffiti even an element of the hip-hop culture? Many early generation writers were partial to rock music. Are rappers agents of social change, themselves? Should they, and can they, lead movements? Or, is their primary purpose to simply “report” about their experience? What sort of boundaries are there, and should there be regarding “belonging” to the culture? Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop addresses these issues and illustrates the way shifting perspectives led the culture in different directions, expanding its ranks at some points, and severing them at others. Perhaps, one can argue that the book glorifies the culture as an entity, but it does not gloss over the struggles within the movement.

One of the blurbs on the back of the book refers to Chang as Hip-Hop’s Howard Zinn. That’s not really a bad comparison. Compared to a VH1 documentary on early hip-hop (which often aren’t terrible) this is a book on written on a post-graduate level. It should be required reading for all kids who profess to like hip-hop music and culture, as well as for their parents.

The other book I’ve had the good fortune to read is, Veeck as in Wreck (1962), the autobiography of nutty baseball owner, Bill Veeck. This book has actually been recommended to me on numerous occasions in the past, and I’m sorry I didn’t read it earlier.

The sheer enjoyment factor of this book stacks up with just about anything I can remember reading.

Veeck grew up in a baseball family, he joined the military, sustained combat injuries before becoming embarking on a career as an owner of Minor League, and then Major League baseball teams. Eventually, he needed a wooden leg. He never sat in the owner’s box, preferring to sit alongside the fans. He was a man about town and a charitable soul who slept ,by his own account, about two hours a night. He converted part of one of his ballparks into an apartment and moved in. Bill Veeck is simply one of those people who, if was presented as fictional character for a film, would be dismissed as unbelievable and ordered to be rewritten.

He planted the ivy on Wrigley Field’s outfield walls, gave away livestock to random fans, and buried the previous season’s pennant in a mock funeral service when his Cleveland Indians failed to repeat as American League Champions. He invented the exploding scoreboard, threw the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” promotion, and rigged fences to different depths depending on the amount of power on the opposition’s team. He is probably best known for sending a midget up to hit in a Major League game (and threatening to pick him off with a sniper rifle from atop the stadium if he took a swing). But that feat was far from Veeck’s zaniest. One can only estimate how many rules have been instituted solely to disallow the wild schemes dreamed up and implemented by Veeck.

More importantly, Veeck rallied for integration years before Jackie Robinson. He proposed reforms to the reserve clause, and pleaded for interleague play over fifty years ago. He was a visionary who was branded a side show.

Bill Veeck was reviled by his fellow owners. He, of course, felt they all had their collars too tight. Veeck’s antics were characterized as unprofessional, yet Veeck set attendance records everywhere he went and won a World Series in Cleveland in 1948.

Like the man, the style of the book is offbeat and drily witty. He weaves in and out of topics and gives a candid view of his era and the characters in his life. He quite probably takes plenty of liberties with embellishment, but he is a unique and colorful character, so you really don’t know where and when. There is nothing that he says he did that beyond imagining, given what we know historically to be true.

This book works for sports fans and non-fans; in fact, it would make a great summer read for a book club that has both. Obviously, your enjoyment of the book is even greater if you’re a baseball history buff, but you needn’t enjoy or know about sports to appreciate this book. Lots and lots of people have written autobiographies; many are self-indulgent and few needed to be written. Neither of those criticisms apply to this book.

Posted in digglahhh, language, pop culture, sports | Leave a Comment »

Whose space?

Posted by digglahhh on 30 June 2007

So, as the family sociologist, Meta asked me to write about America’s class divisions as signaled by the choices teenagers are making between Myspace and Facebook. The issue comes up because of an article by sociologist Danah Boyd that is circulating the net. The crux of the Boyd’s argument is that teens of higher socio-economic class and other “good” teens are more likely to use Facebook, and those of lower socio-economic class are more likely to use Myspace.

Here’s a more detailed description of Boyd’s “good” teens:

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other “good” kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we’d call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

Boyd acknowledges that “good” and “bad” are loaded terms here, but she persists in using them. Here are the “bad” teens:

MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, “burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.

One of the arguments put forth in the essay, and particularly the comments section on the accompanying blog entry, notes the differences between making “friends” and “contacts.” Facebook, particularly because of its genesis in the collegiate world (originally in Harvard), is more suited to “networking” and cultivating relationships that can be professionally advantageous. Myspace relationships are less substantive. I fail to see a major distinction on a behavioral level. I don’t differentiate talking to a classmate because her dad works at Smith Barney from talking to a classmate because her breasts are three-quarters exposed. They are both inherently selfish actions.

The distinctions make for some glaring contradictions. For example, “jocks” are included in the hegemonic group, and associated with higher socio-economic status and social mobility, the group that is considered mostly white. Does that imply that there are no “jocks” in poorer schools, or that the moneyed class disproportionately produces our best athletes? Surely schoolyard culture has its jock heroes. Boyd might want to tune into some professional sports that are popular in America, or introduce herself to Pacman Jones or Tank Johnson. She might also want to educate herself about the dark underside of recruiting and academic eligibility slight-of-hand often used to siphon top high school athletes into collegiate athletic programs.

I’m not going to get wrapped up in the Facebook versus Myspace socio-economic question. If the usage differs along socio-economic lines, it is merely another manifestation of a phenomenon we’ve seen with cellular phone providers, e-mail servers, etc. Why the known fact that “taste” is inherently dialectical would not apply to technological applications is beyond me.

What I want to take issue with is the way social and economic class is discussed in this article, and the value judgments that accompany the discussion. This essay is full of broad generalizations, arbitrary characterization, and contradiction; these characteristics belie the ethnographic methodology the author professes. Ethnography’s greatest strength is dealing with nuance, getting beyond stereotype. Early in the essay, we read:

In sociology, Nalini Kotamraju has argued that constructing arguments around “class” is extremely difficult in the United States. Terms like “working class” and “middle class” and “upper class” get all muddled quickly. She argues that class divisions in the United States have more to do with lifestyle and social stratification than with income. In other words, all of my anti-capitalist college friends who work in cafes and read Engels are not working class just because they make $14K a year and have no benefits. Class divisions in the United States have more to do with social networks (the real ones, not FB/MS), social capital, cultural capital, and attitudes than income

All her anti-capitalist college friends who work in cafes and read Engels?… Whoa! I have friends who work in low-level service jobs and read Engels, and they disagree with one another about politics and culture as well as the really important matters (for example, whether the spitting incident on the Keith Hernandez episode of Seinfeld [“The Boyfriend”] centering around a key Hernandez error, on June 14, 1987, that “opened the door to a five run Philly ninth” compromised quality of the episode, because the actual box score from that date contradicts all those circumstances). If this is the level of stereotypical depiction she’s going to use to describe her friends, how imprecise and sloppy can we expect it to get when she begins discussing people she doesn’t know personally?

I’m not doing justice to ( Kotamraju’s) arguments but it makes sense. My friends who are making $14K in cafes are not of the same class as the immigrant janitor in Oakland just because the share the same income bracket. Their lives are quite different. Unfortunately, with this framing, there aren’t really good labels to demarcate the class divisions that do exist. For this reason, I will attempt to delineate what we see on social network sites in stereotypical, descriptive terms meant to evoke an image.

Oh, okay, that was intentionally stereotypical and shallow. But, your friends may want to read Engels again. If your friends are making the same money as the “Oakland janitor,” but are somehow living in materially better conditions, either somebody needs to call H.U.D. or they are being supported by their boomer mommies and daddies, and that’s the reason they aren’t the same class as the “Oakland janitor.”

By the way, the Engels argument is dropped for the rest of the piece, which talks about those of lower socio-economic class without delving into why they may have lower income levels. Are their parents Engels-reading baristas, or are they Oakland janitors? This is especially curious since some of the sub-categories of the predominantly Myspace-teens are “art-fags,” “punks,” “queer-kids” and others whose identities are related to a rejection of dominant value structures more than a failure to live up to them.

Boyd breaks down the teenagers she studies into two groups, “hegemonic” teens and “subaltern” teens. Later she speaks about them in the terms of “good” and “bad” The first set of terms are weighted with academic baggage, and are bad choices, which she acknowledges. The other set is terribly oversimplified, almost guaranteeing more false dichotomies to come – and they do. At one point, Boyd remarks that she’s seen more “half-naked, drink-carrying high school students on Facebook than on Myspace.” This is relayed as an oddity, yet it actually proves her point. Boyd associates Facebook with college, and college-bound high-schoolers. Well, documenting oneself half-naked and drink-carrying IS A COLLEGE THING. Or maybe I missed the release of “Girls Gone Wild, Compton.”

By setting up these vague, and mutually-exclusive categories, and attaching value-judgment-laden language we are thrown into familiarly choppy waters of false dichotomies, identity binaries and absolutes. Later, as she talks about the teens codifying her categorical distinctions, she writes:

Subaltern teens who go to more mixed-class schools see Facebook as “what the good kids do” or “what the preps do.” They have various labels for these hegemonic teens but they know the division, even if they don’t have words for it.

The shoddy distinctions and less than impressive ethnography makes the reader question whether Boyd is capable of, or accurate when, discerning the implicit distinctions she alludes to the teens making. What words do they have? Perhaps if we hear them, we can get a better understanding of how they codify their categorical distinctions.

Oversimplifications abound. There are numerous references to the “average Latino user,” as if second-generation New York Puerto Ricans, the grandchildren of Castro refugees in Miami, and first-generation Mexicans in Albequerque share a culture. There is no deeper exploration of the “Latino user” community, nor does she even glance at MiGente, which many Latinos use instead of, or in addition to, MySpace.

When discussing the flamboyant aesthetics of Myspace, she refers to it as a “bling” style, stating that the aesthetic is rooted in hip-hop culture where such “brash visual displays are accepted and valued.” There is no distinction made between commercial hip-hop culture, which does promote such imagery, and non-commercial hip-hop, which does not. There’s no attempt to understand the context of contemporary hip-hop culture.

These are, precisely, the more nuanced distinctions that an ethnographic epistemology is designed to understand, and for which we forewent a more superficial but comprehensive statistical approach.

Tangentially, if hip-hop is the most dominant global music and culture of the youth, is it really even correct to classify it (especially, the commercial version) as “subaltern” as opposed to hegemonic? After all, many prominent hip-hop figures are “hegemonics” who market themselves as “subalterns.”

The essay concludes with a discussion of Boyd’s concerns for the future of the youth, both the “hegemonic” and “subaltern” teens. The discussion is barely relevant and frames the issues in a fashion that reeks of disconnected liberalism.

The false dichotomies and absolutism doom the piece from the start, as it focuses on separating two groups, using two social network services that are more similar than different, but focusing on the differences.

Certainly, there are differences between social and economic class, but they overlap more than they diverge, especially in an increasingly consumer-driven culture. Many of these categories of students were based on appearance. If that’s the case, then access to cultural groups can be purchased with a credit card.

Styles, even in their pure forms, overlap. What does it mean to be identified as any one of these groups? Real identities are complex; many of those on opposite sides of the social and economic class gaps have both envy and disdain for their counterparts. Street thugs don’t know whether they want to rob their idols or work for them. These dynamics are evidence of the complexities, and multi-tiered constructions of class identity.

Facebook and Myspace are, essentially, consumer choices. If there is a difference in the using body, the prospective users are given the opportunity to choose who they want to identify themselves with. Similarly, they are given the opportunity of what groups to identify with when they buy a pair of sneakers, or choose which movie to see. Those choices are not necessarily inclined to match a person’s more objective class status, professional tract, or moral foundation. There is a potential chicken-and-egg issue at play here too. Do people of a certain status make a consumer decision as a result of that status, or is their projected class identity a product of the consumer decisions they make?

Consumer driven culture teaches us to judge the book, or at least value it, by its cover. At the same time, it increases the chances those judgments will be wrong. Boyd’s essay, nomenclature and problematic attachment of values emphasize these dangers.

Posted in digglahhh, language, pop culture, technology | 3 Comments »

Team ethics

Posted by digglahhh on 23 June 2007

Self-proclaimed sports fan “purists” have a code of ethics.

1. Thou shalt honor thy father

Familial tradition is for many people the determinant of team allegiance; if your father (and let’s face it, it’s almost always one’s father) was a White Sox fan, you can be a White Sox fan even if he moved 1,000 miles away a decade before you were born.

2. Thou shalt support (or oppose) teams near you geographically

Teams are named for cities and regions, and those facts still dominate our allegiances. If one roots for Chicago even though one lives in New York, it’s despite the fact that one lives in New York.

3. Thou shalt be faithful.

Sticking with a team through thick and thin is the cardinal rule—no band-wagoneering or fair-weather-fandom allowed.

4. Thou shall not mix the apparel of the clean with the unclean.

Those who root for a team shall not wear apparel of their team’s rival—or for the strict fundamentalists, any other team at all.

These are just a few examples of the complex, but unwritten, codes governing the following of team sports.

There are, needless to say, problems with these rules of rabid fandom. For one thing, many are, or are at least becoming, antiquated. Others are myopic.

The primary problem is the lifetime commitment made in the embryonic phase of one’s appreciation for the game.

The choice of what team to root for was a very simple process for most of us. Who does daddy root for, which team is on TV?… The fact is that many of us made our choices about who to root for at a time in our lives when we weren’t trusted to make decisions for ourselves. Yet so-called “purists” say we have to stick with those decisions to the grave. Could you imagine if you had to pick your favorite meal at the age of six? We’d have a generation of (supposed) felons on death row requesting chicken nuggets in the shapes of dinosaurs and washing them down with glasses of Kool-Aid through Bendi-straws…

The most common way we are introduced to sports fandom is through our family. It is the same way we are introduced to politics and religion. In those spheres it is supposed (or, at least, hoped) that an individual makes a choice on what perspectives to adopt at a later point in life, presumably after some research, experience, and heavy thought. Rooting for the Steelers because your dad did isn’t much of a “choice” at all.

Geographical proximity to a team is another popular motivation for choosing a team, and it is linked to the family influence motivator in the sense that they both center on the idea of exposure. Often, a child who develops an interest in sports will gravitate toward a local team because it is the most visible; at least it worked that way through my generation’s childhood years. The internet and cable television have changed that. I have no problem following what goes on in any game, real-time. For the ultra-obsessed, and those who derive a second income off of fantasy sports, like me, we can fork over about $150 (per sport) and have television access to almost every game. It is no longer an obstacle to root for a team outside your geographical region. Exciting teams and athletes can draw young fans from all over.

I’m as big of a sports fan as you will find, but I don’t adopt all of the “purists’” rules. Many of them prioritize team allegiance over appreciation of sports history. Somehow, if the Mets are being no-hit going into the ninth and losing by 5 runs, it makes me less of a fan to root for the no-hitter. Sorry buddy, “baseball” is the genus, “Mets” is the species; I root first and foremost for the game. And, yes, that essentially would make me the “purest” of all fans, though I couldn’t care less about some contrived and arbitrary measurement of “purity.”

Changing allegiances is a complex issue. Certainly, polygamy is not lauded, but the counter-argument is that it is also its own punishment. The joy that lifelong New York Rangers fans experienced in 1994 or Boston Red Sox fans felt in 2004 is something an 80’s Los Angeles Lakers backer turned 90’s Chicago Bulls fan could never imagine.

But, even those who are very tolerant of fan behavior that contradicts the “purist” code still find themselves judging allegiance-shifting by some standard. Though I’ve never “disowned” one of my teams, I have been in a bit of a battle recently. I don’t consider a team’s futility to be a legitimate reason to abandon a team, but an overall, front office to on-field, apathy about success reframes the question. The Knicks have me very close to jumping ship, not as a result of their poor performance, but because of their apparent institutional committal to and contentment with failure. The temptation is even stronger because I adopted the Dallas Mavericks, after their 11 win season in 1992 as my empathetic charity case (which was quickly strengthened upon their drafting of Jason Kidd two seasons later, who was one of my favorite collegiate players ever). Now, my relationship with the Mavs is like the one kid who was always nice to the ugly duckling turned prom queen, but who also happens to be an abusive relationship and paralyzed by a sense of (unreciprocated) loyalty. Dirk Nowitzki is the anti-Frederic Weis, and Mark Cuban, the anti-Dolan. Still I cling to a fading, yet also hardening, image of Charles Oakley.

Why should I feel guilty if I were to decide to make Dallas my primary team, and the Knocks my secondary rooting interest? I shouldn’t; but I would!

Team sports fandom is a complicated psychological and intellectual exercise. It poses more problems then fans of individual sports have.

In a team sport, you are expected to continue to root for your team as those who you originally fell in love with retire, or are traded to another team. If you were an Andre Agassi fan, there is no pre-determined direction your support is compelled to take upon his retirement, though you may be drawn to players whose games remind you of Agassi, or to the young Turk who decisively took him out in a U.S. Open final.

Free agency has created a problem for the new generation of fans of sports teams, as it creates a tension between tennis-like support for the individual and the team-sport code of ethics. It has become all too easy to root for a player as opposed to a team, and the player can move on before you ever fall in love with the periphery. Cleveland Cavs fans root for Lebron James because he is the best thing to ever happen to their team. (Apologies to my eighth grade English teacher who will go to his grave claiming Mark Price was better than John Stockton, and a shout-out to Larry Nance who I still think, in his day, could throw it down better than Bron-Bron.) Lebron James fans root for Cleveland because that’s the team he plays for. Are all the Lebron James fans who will jump ship if he puts on a new jersey “real fans? It depends on how you define “true fan.”

Team sports fans are not only are expected to never change allegiances, there is a hierarchy of allegiance dictating who we are supposed to support once our team is ousted from contention. A team in our league, but not a direct rival, root for former members of your team, but only those who left on certain terms…

This is where I face another conflict, and where the code of ethics obscures the appreciation of the game. I’m a retro-jersey and hat junkie (and was one before commercial rap made it a fad). The powder blue, 1976 Mike Schmidt jersey with the Liberty Bell patch is a thing of beauty, and Schmidt is the greatest third-sacker in the history of the game. If I could afford it, I’d sport that jersey with pride, along with the matching burgundy fitted that registers on my five favorite hats of all time list. Yeah, I’m a die-hard Mets fan. So the fuck what! Personally, I see those who are fans of teams only, the way team-only fans see player-only fans.

A hyper-capitalist, arch-competitive society conditions citizens to think in terms of absolutes and dichotomies. In the process of picking our dog in the race, rooting for, and supporting it, we lose a sense of the race itself and fail to appreciate the history and nuanced terrain of the track. The same process exalts the individual and creates an entry into the world of team sports fandom through the individual player level.

The so-called “purists” are often anything but. Technology opens new doors and the vanguards reject nomenclature. Judging who is and isn’t a “true fan” reflects your individual preferences more than an objective reality.

Posted in digglahhh, pop culture, sports | 6 Comments »

Ring my bell

Posted by digglahhh on 16 June 2007

My current next door neighbor moved in when I was still in college. Today I live there with my girlfriend and rambunctious pitbull/labrador mix, but back then, with my younger brother, two friends on a daily basis, a group of about five semi-regulars, and a group of about twenty any of whom might stay over on any given evening. Five was par for a weeknight, twice as many wasn’t uncommon on any given weekend. Those were only those who stayed over. My mother technically lived there, but essentially did so only in the eyes of the post office.

My neighbor didn’t take too kindly to the constant party scene. With his longish hair and relatively unkempt facial hair, he projected something of a hipster aesthetic. Occasionally, I would hear him playing acoustic guitar. But he also came off as cautious. When he would come over to complain about the noise coming from my apartment, he’d be apologetic about it, but not because he was seeking compromise, just because he feared confrontation. Rebellious and empowered with a sense of tenure, as a twenty-plus year resident of the building, I just ignored his complaints. Never did I give him a reason to be fearful of approaching me about the noise. I was trying to condition him to realize that his efforts were ineffectual, and lead him to stop on his own. Honestly, he did have legitimate beefs most of the time, but many times he did not. Two in the morning on a Tuesday, yes I should shut down the music. Ten in the evening on a Saturday, you must be trying to make enemies.

As time passed, the scene in the house mellowed out. A crescendo of drug use passed. I had learned what a courtroom looked like from the other side of the jury box, and I decided that I did not want to continue such a lifestyle, at least in the excess and with the regularity that I had been. By the time I was finishing school, my mother, who still nominally lived with us, was getting ready to officially move out and the crew was down to the two regulars and the occasional small gathering on the weekends – tame by comparison. Still, my neighbor badgered incessantly.

We would get wasted and talk about the things college students talk about, metalinguistics, how the hell Bert Blyleven isn’t in the Hall of Fame, which one of our old high school teachers would win a hypothetical no-holds-barred Battle Royal. The fact that our discussions always had value is something I was very adamant about, and I still am. It was this sensitivity that my neighbor offended in his first really inflammatory transgression.

One weeknight, probably around 11:30 or so, a couple of my friends and I had some music on and are engaged in a discussion, when the bell rang. I’m stating as objectively as possible that we were not engaging in an egregious feat of disturbance. My faux hipster neighbor asked me if we could keep it down. I told him that we were not being very loud. Again he displayed the paradoxical nerve to come to complain without the conviction to actually “stand up for himself.”. His tactic, tried and true, was apologetic pandering. He began talking about how often overheard our conversations. He told me how he would hear us talk about the Knicks sometimes, and that he is a basketball fan too, and he knows we can get passionate about our team. He was rambling (insincerely) about how sometimes he actually felt like he’d like to be part of the discussion, despite the fact that he never attempted to strike up conversation of any kind when I ran into him alone in the elevator or laundry room.

That got me pissed; I don’t like to be patronized. I looked back at him and calmly replied, “Well, right now my friend is claiming that looking back at some of Oscar Wilde’s work you can actually see a lot of the ideas put forth decades later by the Frankfurt School, particularly Benjamin and Adorno. Do you have anything to contribute to that discussion?” Then I slammed the door.

Currently, I have a very active social life but rarely have visitors. My girlfriend and I work opposite schedules and therefore, there is rarely more than one other person in the house, and when there is, at least one of us is usually sleeping. My neighbor recently had a baby. I don’t know who whines more, he or the child.

This past Sunday, at two o’clock in the afternoon I was cleaning the house and bumping some old school hip-hop, mainly Boogie Down Productions and Big Daddy Kane. The Mets game was on mute. I don’t recall Kane hollering “If you ain’t down with Neo-Marxism, ring your neighbor’s bell,” but lo and behold this motherfucker did. He asked me if I could turn the music down; it was the baby’s naptime. I told him that it was 2:00 in the afternoon. I really wanted to ask him why he thinks I should forfeit my right to listen to vintage hip-hop at the decibel level it is supposed to be played just because he forgot to slip on a rubber. Mid-nineties hip-hop was down with safe sex; too bad you slept, homie… The kicker is that I was just about to eject the disc and pop in a soothing and low volume Robert Anton Wilson lecture when he rang. So, it actually looked like I respected his impressively selfish request.

Last week’s entry in this space was a rant about an institutionalized sense of entitlement amongst conservative white males. Today, I have to confess that the most uppity bitch in my building is a Cuban woman approximately sixty years old who is fond of claiming that she’s descended from aristocracy. She’s head of the Co-op board; I, the white male, am one of the building’s last renters. That’s right, take a good look at the Fidel Castro shirt, keep your mouth shut. You wouldn’t want my pit to have herself a little snack in the form of your pocketbook dog, now would you?…

But the question that fascinates me is, what makes my neighbor think he is entitled to live a life of culture and access in New York City while maintaining a completely insular home environment? The interplay of art, culture, noise, and bustle in the public and private spheres is a big part of what makes New York City what it is. This is the birthplace of hip-hop, the world’s most dominant culture, and that culture was born from kids dragging sound systems to the block and duffle bags of spray cans to the train yards on a mission to blur the lines between the private and the public. Some consider the birth of hip-hop to be reverse-colonialism.

Were I to ironically use conservative rhetoric, I’d tell him that he should have studied harder in school, and then he would have been able to afford a nice house on a plot of land big enough to not worry about what his neighbor does. But that’s not what he wants. He, like so many of the new residents of this recently castrated city, wants to have his cake and to eat it too.

Cultural metropolises don’t come out of a box. New York City is an ecosystem. It is a set of complex interactions that produce a rich and historic sense of culture, diversity and passion. Crime and noise are like bugs, nuisances maybe, but necessary components to the whole. You can’t just exterminate them and not get reverberating effects. When you kick prostitution and drug dealers out of Times Square and buff the graffiti off the trains you aren’t just curing “eyesores” or “improving the quality of life.” You are redrawing the lines of a social battleground, you are making it safe for corporate rule, stabbing at the arteries of the city’s uniqueness. More importantly, as it turns out, you have traded local, small scale immorality for large scaled institutionalized immorality, replacing street wisdom with plastic values. The unattainable images of beauty put forth by Conde Nast and Disney, now occupying Times Square, has done more damage to women’s bodies and self image than any pimp or fresh john ever could! When those who create wealth off the oppression of others feel safe around those they oppress, the city has become dysfunctional.

You come to a place like New York City to find an alternative to the cookie-cutter structure of suburban sprawl and the glass menagerie of Middle American values (if you can’t buy a blow job at 8th Avenue and 42nd Street, where in America is someone from Utah or Missouri supposed to go?). So, while I try to respect my neighbors by any reasonable standard, I will not be shutting down the music in mid-afternoon on a weekend.

Can I turn down the music? See, I’d love to, but I can’t trust you to educate your child about the musical anthology of the Wu Tang Clan, so I’m just going to have to do my New Yorker duty and do it for you. The least you could do is show a bit of gratitude.

If I believed in God, I’d thank her that my neighbor didn’t live on 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the early 1970’s, next to Clive Campbell, Clive might never have become Kool Herc if he did..

Posted in digglahhh, pop culture | 37 Comments »

Crossing out words to better see them

Posted by digglahhh on 9 June 2007

What a bunch of melodramatic, self-entitled, historically ignorant whiners white males the conservative punditry are. For example, Often you’ll hear them ask why there is no “White History Month.” The assumption of neutrality causes people to falsely conclude that now Black History Months outnumber White History Months 1 to 0, when in reality, White History Months dominate 11 to 1.

They refuse to recognize themselves as the all-time greatest beneficiaries of policies that have been and still are, essentially, affirmative action. Yet, they have no problem lambasting those who refuse to recognize white people as a “minority.” Yes, there are arenas in which white people happen to make up less than half of some specifically limited segment of the American population. That doesn’t make them members of an oppressed minority.

The specific acts of whining and semantic manipulation I have in mind are their uses of words like “indoctrination” and “objectivity.” Even as they descry the limiting of terms like “oppression” or “victimization” to non-white minority groups, the conservative right is only willing to apply terms like “indoctrination” or “brainwashing” to the teaching or discussion of values that contradict their hegemonic counterparts.

Consider, for example, the way you frequently hear the right accusing professors of indoctrinating students into Marxism or other radical ideologies. Yet when you look at the circumstances of the accusation, almost always, anything beyond the barest of introductions to the subject is considered an indoctrination. We’re left to assume that teachers are obliged to uphold whatever norms happen to exist, as if a student’s social and educational experiences up until that point have been characterized by a non-indoctrinating objectivity. Such a notion is patently false, and either naïve, inane, or disingenuous, depending on the motives of the accuser. Conservative instructors are quick to remind their students that their assignments should give an objective summary based on the facts. The simple fact is, a college professor simply doesn’t have the contact time with a student to indoctrinate to anything but the smallest degree, in comparison to the synergistic messaging of a conumer based, mass media driven culture. I guess teaching people who that bereted silhouette that adorns hipsters’ T-shirts is, and explaining to how he might feel about his image being printed on sweatshop products and worn as an (unintentionally ironic) fashion trend classifies as indoctrination.

It is not the accusation of bias that is bothersome, as it is sometimes true. It is the false dichotomy implied between the subjectivity of university classes, specialized and clearly labeled, by comparison, and the objectivity of a high school class in American History –or Saturday morning cartoons for that matter– that is manipulative. Any perspective that doesn’t contradict, or even one that reinforces the dominant value structure or accepted histories of events are assumed to be objective. But, being subversive is not an essential criterion to the process of indoctrination and objectivity is not something that is relative to an interpretable status quo.

Not every disagreement marks an absence of objectivity. Many disagreements are defined by clashes of subjective interpretations that both hold historical merit.

The ultimate goal of a marketer is for his/her individual model or brand to becoming synonymous to the general product itself. All adhesive bandages are referred to as Band-Aids. Similarly, we have Kleenex, Gatorade, Rollerblade, and White-Out (list as many as you can on a long car trip, it’s fun). To most of our population, “history as written and interpreted by white Christian capitalist men” has simply become, “history.” .

Contrawise, a Marxist interpretation of history it is not any more subjective than the version consumed by the masses; it is just more explicitly labeled. It is always the “other” that is labeled. The non-otherness of the unlabeled is implied. Hence, the Negro Leagues, the colored fountain, working women, diet soda, etc.

Classification experts from Aristotle to Linnaeus to Orwell would tell you these are social and political choices, not scientific ones. A cup that contains nothing but coffee isn’t a cup of coffee, it’s “black coffee,” while one that has been adulterated with milk and sugar is a “regular coffee.” A cousin of mine has coined the term “retronym” for terms like caffinated coffee, unflavored ginger ale, triple-tax-free bonds, etc.

What we should be arguing for in terms of dissemination of ideologies and information through the media and educational system is simple and clear labeling and general transparency. As a member of a free society, I have no objections to the marketplace of ideas or to giving people several different interpretations of world events. But, disallowing false advertising is a precondition of a fair marketplace. When you turn on the nightly news you are getting, predominantly, a white, Christian, capitalist, and male interpretation of world events. That’s fine. What is not fine is that none of those biases are advertised.

Basically, the manipulative use of words like “indoctrination” and “objectivity” run the gamut of Orwellian sin. In his “Politics and the English Language,” he specifically cites “objective” as an example of pretentious diction, which , is “used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.”

When discussing meaningless words, he said,

“Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”

And about the modern political writing of his day, he wrote,

“The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism… The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms…”

Jean Michel Basquiat, who I referenced in last week’s post, famously stated, “I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” Perhaps he was on to something, as most of those who make the type of complaints I’ve been deconstructing read February as “Black History Month,” when in reality it is a lot closer to White History Month.

Posted in digglahhh, education, language, Orwell, politics | 3 Comments »

We just don’t give a buck

Posted by digglahhh on 2 June 2007

“Working class people are so intimidated by the museum experience anyway, they don’t feel they can just give a quarter. It’s really unfair.”

That is a quote from a July 2006 NYT article, given by artist and teacher, Jane Kaplowitz regarding to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision to (stealthily) raise the suggested admission fee for adults from fifteen to twenty dollars.

Last week my girlfriend and I went to the Guggenheim. While we waited on the subway platform, I asked her what the admission was. After saying what it was—an absurd $18—she admitted to purposely avoiding telling me prior to our being on our way there.

Poor and working class people are being priced out of culturally and intellectually valuable experiences, while the chic art world is becoming increasingly intimidating to them. The Met is nominally an exception—its admission fee is a voluntary “suggested” contribution. If you can overcome the intimidation factor of its vaulted ceilings, hushed tones, and moneyed patrons, the only thing between you and fifty centuries of art is the momentary scorn of a ticket clerk as you fork over a buck or two and stand tall, waiting for an entry button that, once inside, looks the same as everyone else’s. Revealingly, the plaques that list the museum’s admission fees used to say “Pay What You Wish but You Must Pay Something,” but they no longer do.

The Museum of Natural History is $10.50 for a student, not including the Planetarium (or the substances needed to get the most out of the experience). The Guggenheim is $18 for adults, but a more reasonable $5 for students, and free for children under 12 (actually it is less than that right now because parts of it are closed for renovation and so the price is discounted.) MOMA is $20 for an adult and $12 for “full-time” students. It is free to children, with a nicely high cut-off age of 16 – but the free rate doesn’t apply to “children in groups.”

This is an utter travesty. The cost of living in New York City is an astonishing 212% of the national average already. The rest of the country clucks its tongue and says, “Well, at least there’s Broadway, restaurants, and all those museums.” For years, the first two have been priced out of the reach of the median New Yorker, but at least museums were easy to get into.

If you claim to value the intellectual and social development of a population, especially children, culture must be made accessible. Defenders of museum admission prices often note they are in line with the cost of a movie or baseball game—which, by the way, they no longer are, especially for children—but wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if a teenager chose to go to MOMA instead of a movie because it was cheaper? In a world of global competition we can’t afford to continually sour our youth on entire fields of human endeavor. The single most important step towards not alienating urban kids from art is to make it an economically sensible alternative to “low culture.” We can’t continue to blame poor people for making unhealthy decisions if they aren’t offered economically viable, culturally healthy alternatives.

Parents have to take initiative too. I often hear parents talk about how their children would rather play video games or watch television than go to a museum or go to the park to learn how to play basketball. Frankly, that is a bunch of bullshit.

Children are not born with these preferences. They are, however, inundated with advertisements from companies seeking their business (directly or vicariously through their parents). Little Johnny is not born preferring a Playstation controller to finger-paints, but he will soon develop that preference if you don’t attempt to influence him otherwise. Those who tell you to let the child dictate his/her own interests do so because they know what those interests will be if the parent takes a hands off approach.

Going back to the original quote, I think it is true that working class people are made to feel out of place in an art gallery. I’ve had friends tell me such. I try to tell them that many of the artists themselves have more similarities to you and me than with the gallery curators. Shit, Jean-Michel Basquiat isn’t mysterious and offbeat to me; his creative expressions were pretty much what would be expected of an artistically inclined, intelligent person who came of age in the 1970s. Alright, maybe he was a little offbeat.

Much of the greatest art produced comes from struggle; the stereotype of the starving artist is based on a reality. Art is a poor man’s medium that has been co-opted by the wealthy in an attempt to own the culture. Look at what is happening with the graffiti art movement. Over the course of 40 years, by its own admission Time magazine has gone from cursing it as “public defacement” to commissioning it for its own promotional purposes.

Many artists feel just as uncomfortable in the chic culture of the art world as prospective working class visitors would.

Elsewhere, museums are often free. Our national museums, most of them in Washington D.C., are free (though increasingly charging for “special exhibitions”). Around the world, museums are mostly free. There’s nothing more liberating than sauntering into the Tate Museum in London for 15 minutes of a lunch hour just to look at a single painting. Even in this country, more and more museums are offering that experience, as the NY Times reported last year. New York is, unfortunately, completely out of step even though, at 212%, it needs more than any other U.S. city.

Infusing the lives of our children with art is a two-way street. The art world must embrace working class visitors and accommodate them socially and financially. The working class must take the initiative to reclaim their relevance within the art world. Creativity is not the exclusive province of the moneyed and suggested donations are not mandatory. Art has been taken away from the common man because he is too shy and self-conscious to ask for it back.

Posted in digglahhh, education, the arts | 5 Comments »

Smoke em if you got ‘em

Posted by digglahhh on 26 May 2007

In the latest installment of the imitation cycle between life and art, the MPAA announced that it will include a film’s depictions of smoking as part of the “criteria” when assigning ratings. Could the movies have made a more complete reversal? As facetiously portrayed in “Thank You for Smoking,” the movies have been the cigarette’s greatest marketeers for decades, and the sexiness of cigarettes clung to the movies like smoke to a sports jacket. In an odd way, of course, there’s no reversal at all. The new rating system is a frank, if tacit, acknowledgement that smoking still has all the sex appeal it ever had.

In his craven concession to anti-tobacco advocates, MPAA chairman and CEO Dan Glickman off-loaded his decision-making to the public at large, “Clearly, smoking is increasingly an unacceptable behavior in our society,” he was quoted as saying.

Really, Dan? The Altria Group, parent company of Philip Morris, is the ranked by Forbes (on the basis of sales, market value, assets and profits) as 27th biggest company in the world. Nearly 70 percent of its profits (almost $70 billion in 2006) come from tobacco. Altria is also the second most active sponsor of Congressional lobbying. It seems a little disingenuous to refer to an industry that does hundreds of billions of dollars worth of business and from which hundreds of millions of dollars flow into Washington as selling a product that is becoming “unacceptable” in society, however unpleasant it is to get stuck in an elevator with someone coming back from their twice-an-hour cigarette break.

I have a friend who worked for a public relations company that represented several drug companies and medical innovators. Part of his job was to negotiate product placement packages with television and film production companies. These companies pay, as part of their marketing campaigns, for specific drugs or elective surgeries to be written into shows like ER. So we are pressuring writers to write smoking out of the same scripts they write rhinoplasty and OxyContin into.

It’s not as if I have a soft spot in my heart for big tobacco. In fact, I’m glad that the MPAA is taking a moral stand on the content of movies and what it deems appropriate for children to see. After all, it’s not like children ever see R-rated movies. And this sets an important precedent. We live in an unhealthy and dysfunctional culture, so let’s bring it on, and address America’s bad habits. I herewith offer a short list of other behaviors for the MPAA consideration when determining the ratings of movies.

1. Excessive consumption of red meat, fast food, soft drink, chocolate, potato chips, or any other generally unhealthful food or beverage products:

The favorable placement of the products merits a PG-13 rating. Moreover, scenes that sexualize chocolate should get an automatic NC-17 rating. If there are any objections from the Screen Actors Guild, I personally volunteer to set the example by licking wheat germ off of Scarlett Johansson’s breasts. Scale back one rating level for the substitution of organic soybeans in any scenes involving ice cream or “comfort food.”

2. Environmentally irresponsible behavior with automobiles:

Is there any reason Spiderman and Venom can’t carpool to work? They may be arch enemies, but the planet is everybody’s friend. Not to mention, what’s the point of saving/exploiting the world if it’s all going to hell anwyay? That’s a shitty prize at the bottom of the cereal box, no? Remember most movies depicting cereals that offer prizes are now PG- 13 rated, at least. (see rule #1).

3. Shopping scenes and the depiction of luxury items in general:

Private debt in this country is out of control. Not to mention the fact that if terrorists didn’t find out, through movies, that we had things like plasma TVs and La Perla lingerie, a certain pair of towers in downtown Manhattan might still exist. This rule, like the biographical considerations for the smoking depictions, can be adapted for context, such as glorifying college study and denigrating trades such as plumbing and carpentry. After all, if we don’t reinforce lives of glamour and glitz as the reward for hard study at the best colleges, millions of young girls may cease working toward their dreams of living the life of Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” What’s that?… Oh, well, I’m sure she worked hard at being the best damn whore she could be. Anyway, it is all this living beyond their means that lead these characters to have to skip out of restaurants without paying the check.

Smoking, after all, is barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to harmful behaviors glorified by Hollywood. From deriving self-esteem from physical appearance and material possessions to binary gender roles to environmentally destructive behavior, Hollywood, and its step-sister, Madison Avenue, exploit our insecurities, offer material surrogates for psychological and emotional injury, and laugh their way to the bank, entirely divorced from any real ethical concerns for the healthy development of our nation.

But don’t worry kids, though you can’t see an actor lighting up because it might encourage you to make some poor choices about your health, you can always redeem your ticket stub at the local McDonalds for a small piece of plastic crap manufactured by kids half your age in a dank Indonesian basement, provided you purchase an e. coli burger, enough fries to feed a Thai orphanage for a week, and a 77 oz. Coca Cola.

Posted in digglahhh, food, pop culture | 2 Comments »

Fifteen wins ain’t what it used to be

Posted by digglahhh on 19 May 2007

Here’s two things you thought were true but aren’t:

The unemployment rate for 2006 was 4.6%

E.R.A. is nearly a complete measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness

Let’s break down the unemployment rate first.

The U.S. unemployment rate is constantly cited as an economic indicator and a consistently low rate is seen as proof of the efficiency of the market based economy. There’s only one problem: it does not measure the prevalence of joblessness in a community. There are two reasons the U.S. unemployment rate severely under-represents precisely what is claims to represent.

First and foremost, the way in which the stat is calculated is inconsistent with its title. It does not include those who are jobless but have not applied for or exhausted their benefits. The unemployment rate is a measure of what percentage of the population is actively seeking work. Our European counterparts do not suffer from higher unemployment rates because they are too foolish to adopt the hyper-efficient neo-classical economic model that we do. They post higher rates because they define jobless and unemployed to mean the same thing.

The other reason why our unemployment rate is disingenuously low is that we use the legal system as a cruel step-sister surrogate to our social welfare system. We incarcerate our citizens at 5 to 8 times the rate of most industrialized nations, according to the Sentencing Project, a rate that increased dramatically during the 1990s. Our prison population dwarfs that of any other Westernized nation.

Good research on the subject estimates that more than one in three inmates were unemployed at the time of incarceration. Hundreds of thousands of our unemployed are uncounted, hidden in our penal system, many for petty offenses and low-level drug crimes. The impact that the penal system has on joblessness is manifold. Upon release, the stigma of incarceration becomes a powerful deterrent to potential employers, which leads individuals back toward illegal behavior. Joblessness leads to incarceration which leads back to joblessness. Not collecting unemployment while in jail, lacking the immediate work history to qualify for benefits upon release, and often landing back in prison, a prisoner may go uncounted in the unemployed population for years.

A study by Bruce Western and Katherine Beckett published in the January 1999 edition of the American Journal of Sociology estimated that when the U.S. unemployment rate was readjusted for our imprisoned population, we fare no better than industrialized European nations in terms of providing work for our citizens. In fact, the study showed that the prison boom negated the job creation of the economic upturn in the 1990s, and then some.

“U.S. employment performance looks weaker once the size of the prison population is taken into account… The modified estimate suggests that unemployment in the economically buoyant period in the mid 1990s is about 8% – higher than any conventional U.S. unemployment rate since the recession of the early 1980s.”

We also don’t count the underemployed, involuntary part-time workers, involuntary early retirees, those with disability who would like to work but are not working, or those who chose to return to school because of the job market.

While the unemployment rate doesn’t measure enough to accurately portray what it claims to, a pitcher’s earned run average (ERA) measures many confounding variables beyond a pitcher’s control. It is also a precarious statistic that has garnered far more trust from its general community than it has earned.

A pitcher’s ERA is highly dependent on the defense that plays behind him. Voros McCracken’s research has shown that the percentages of balls in play that become hits are surprisingly consistent from pitcher to pitcher. Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is about .300 for virtually all pitchers over the course of their careers.

To understand that statistic, let’s first note that in any given at-bat, there are three possible outcomes that do not involve the defense: the homerun; the strikeout; and the walk. All other outs must be recorded by players other than the pitcher (except for the small percentage of balls hit to the pitcher himself). You will often hear baseball men refer to a particular pitcher’s ability to “induce weak contact,” that is, his ability to get hitters to hit weak ground balls or pop ups that wind up as outs. Such a pattern has rarely been documented as an attributable skill. BABIP measures the batting average in at-bats that do not result in strikeouts or homeruns. Some of the absolute best pitchers of all time have shown ability (at least in their primes) to consistently post below-league average BABIPs, like Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera, but they are rare exceptions (and future first-ballot Hall of Famers).

Take a look Roy Oswalt and Ramon Ortiz. Oswalt is consistently one of the best pitchers in the game while Ramon Ortiz has been a below average pitcher for most of his career. Yet their BABIPs are very similar. When you look at the defensive independent numbers though, a huge difference is apparent. Approximately speaking, Oswalt, on a per nine inning basis, strikes out 50% more, walks 33% fewer, and gives up homeruns half as often. This is the difference between an annual Cy Young candidate and a retread journeyman.

The differences in ERA between pitchers who do these three things at similar rates are attributable to two things, the defenses behind them and luck. Sometimes stellar defense and/or random fluctuation allows a pitcher to defy BABIP when balls are hit within the range of fielders at an unusually high rate or an exceptional set of defenders are able to field more balls than normal, especially when these events happen to occur in prime scoring situations. But only a handful of the all time greats can do so regularly, and with differing casts accompanying them.

I like to say that most things that happen on a baseball field that fans traditionally chalk up to luck are really just the random variation expected to occur in outcome over a large sample size. Whether those random variations happen at particularly high leverage points in the game is the luck. That is to say that a ground ball that scoots through, two inches beyond the shortstop’s glove is not luck at all, though the batter had no control over whether that ball was two inches to the left or right. What is luck is if that event happened to occur with the bases loaded or with two outs and nobody on. Of course, the pitcher would have not done his job any better had that ball been hit two inches to the left, or if there was nobody on and the runner was left stranded. His ERA would reflect failure though, even if the reason the shortstop didn’t get to the ball was because he got a bad jump, misread the trajectory or has atrocious range up the middle (cough, Derek Jeter, cough).

ERA alone is not a reliable predictor of year to year success; it is too subject to fluke strings of events and the performance of one’s defense. ERA measures a variety of things, but none of them particularly precisely. The reading it gives is partially driven by skill, partially driven by luck and partially driven by the skill of those whom it is not measuring. Sometimes a confluence of circumstances will create a perfect storm that plays to a pitcher’s tendencies. Brandon Webb’s Cy Young performance last year coincided with Arizona improving its infield defense drastically from the previous year, including the signing of Orlando Hudson (arguably the best defensive 2B in the game). Webb’s balls in play are ground balls more frequently than any other Major League starter.

This doesn’t even begin to address the differences in home ballpark, quality of opposition, not having to face your own team’s offense, the impact of unearned runs, relievers inheriting runners already on base (who are charged to the starter if they score) and the myriad other issues that impact ERA.

To get an accurate picture, one has to look at the core components of performance, components controlled solely by the person whose performance the stat indicates. So, while some people marvel at the phenomenal start of 2007 for sub par pitchers like Jason Marquis and point to his tiny ERA, his BABIP is 70 points lower than he has posted at any point in his career. Mr. Marquis is simply benefiting from an anomalous string of events taking place over a comparatively small sample size. It will not last.

In the world of baseball, there is a burgeoning movement to analyze the game from a more scientific perspective and really test the validity of long-standing assumptions. I don’t see that as in mainstream political and economic rhetoric. The dramatic rise in incarceration rates has coincided with declining crime rates. This should be a big story. Either there is some egregious error in the way crime is being reported or our practices of incarceration have to do with things more profound than simple law breaking.

Michael Lewis’s Moneyball has become one of the most influential sports books ever written. In it, Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane, talks about how much money is invested in the game of baseball and how big the stakes of winning are. One of the themes of the book is how preposterous it would be to entrust the making of such huge financial and strategic decisions simply to the hunches and gut feelings of coaches, managers and GMs, yet teams do just this – all the time. Beane adopted a scientific approach to the game that was expounded by a marginalized group of niche baseball students. This epistemological approach to baseball is called sabermetrics and it is not new, but, since the book’s appearance, perhaps only porn has grown more as a result of the internet. Meanwhile, the Oakland A’s compete with the big boys every year with a fraction of the budget and seem to have an endless supply of talented young players, especially pitchers.

The Oakland A’s rarely sacrifice bunt, they rarely steal bases. Run expectancy matrices calculated over thousands of games illustrate mathematical truths that contradict accepted baseball wisdom. Trading an out for a base advanced worsens your chances of scoring runs. Getting caught stealing is anywhere from two to three times as detrimental as a successful steal is beneficial (depending on the overall offensive context of the game). Still, small ball is praised by the old guard who lament the lost art of the bunt, ad nauseam. Of course there are many variables and under different situations and with different players certain strategies become more viable than others. But isn’t it at least beneficial for the managers and commentators to know the base from which deviations occur?

One of FireJoeMorgan’s favorite quotes is from Ron Gardenhire, manager of the Minnesota Twins, who claimed that their second baseman, Luis Castillo was worth 15 extra wins to their team. Well there are stats that try to determine these things. According to WARP (Wins Over Replacement Player), Barry Bonds was worth about 15 extra wins in 2004, when he set the single season record for on-base percentage and had the fourth highest single season slugging percentage of all time! This is like an economic analyst saying that Google is worth a “shitload of cash” or “a bazillion dollars.” Of course, these mathematically driven total player metrics have their problems as well and there is no shortage of debate about how to make them more accurate.

We’ve seen only half-hearted pop-culturish attempts to look beyond generally accepted assumptions in an attempt to analyze things at a much more elemental level when it comes to paradigm shifts, social trends our own decision making processes—books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics. Of course, I’m speaking outside the realm of academia.

This type of insight is threatening to mainstream pundits. Many of ESPN’s baseball analysts outright deny the veracity of anything sabermetric, often using generic platitudes like, “games aren’t played by computers.” They are understandably defensive; the iconoclast ideas presented threaten to expose those batting average worshippers and NASDAQ watchers as naked emperors.

Joe Morgan, ironically, takes every opportunity to bash sabermetrics and Lewis’s book, though he’ll freely admit that he never read it. He says that he’s played the game and there is nothing about it that a computer could teach him. I say it is ironic because it is the sabermetric interpretation of statistical analysis that transforms Morgan from the lower-tier Hall of Famer the public sees him as, into, arguably, the greatest 2B of all time.

You’ll hear about the prison system as an ironfisted surrogate for the social welfare system on CNN as often as you’ll see BABIP listed in the New York Post. Just further proof why you shouldn’t be getting your information about things you care about from either.

Back in March, Meta had a post, “The housing market: everything you know is wrong” (by which he meant, everything he thought he knew was wrong) that looked at a surprising graph of housing prices. The post remains stubbornly popular, having been viewed on all but 11 of the past 79 days, perhaps a tribute the willingness of visitors to this site to have their everyday assumptions challenged.

We live in a data-rich world and economists and social scientists are just getting used to using the vast resources of computing power and cheap data storage available to us. Using the data effectively often takes great cleverness and imagination. The greater difficulty, however, may be to get people used to the idea that the things everyone knows can now be verified—and all too often falsified.

Posted in digglahhh, language, pop culture, sports, technology | 4 Comments »

 
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