Politics, Technology, and Language

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

Archive for January, 2008

Entertainment ecosystems, part 2: The Broadway Channel

Posted by metaphorical on 30 January 2008

… we speak of things that matter,
With words that must be said,
“Can analysis be worthwhile?”
“Is the theater really dead?”

    — Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel

I argued in an earlier post that the music industry was killing off its ecosystem. Well, theatre has never had much of one, and it’s killing off what little it has.

Back in December, Carroll Senior High School, in Dallas, Tx., mounted a production of “The Phantom Of The Opera.” It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. As the local NBC station reported,

R&H Theatricals, a division of The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, has selected Carroll Senior High School as one of six pilot productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s acclaimed musical in anticipation of its eventual release into the community, regional and school theatrical market.

“While there are no plans at this time to release Phantom to the stock and amateur market, we want to be fully prepared for when that great day arrives,” said Charlie Scatamacchia, Vice President for R&H Theatricals. “What we learn from the production at Carroll Senior High School and five other sites we’ve chosen will help us with the process of bringing the longest running musical in Broadway history to theaters across the country.”

Working from the very same script and score that is currently being enacted every night on Broadway, in London’s West End, and on U.S. National Tour, the production here at Carroll Senior High School along with the five other pilot productions will provide R&H Theatricals with the roadmap for future local stagings of “Phantom” across America.

Phantom is a very carefully managed theatrical property. And it’s wealthy beyond belief. It’s the exception. It opened in London in 1986 and is still playing in the same theatre there. It opened in New York in 1988, and is still playing at the Majestic Theater, 20 years later, the longest run in Broadway history, and the only current show to run permanently in other cities as well.

“’The Phantom Of The Opera” has been produced in hundreds of cities in more than 20 countries around the world, and seen by an estimated worldwide audience of 80 million people to date. It has received more than 50 major theatre awards, among them seven Tony Awards including Best Musical.

Phantom spun off a movie in 2004. Of course, the play is loosely based on the classic 1925 movie, itself adapted from a classic 19th century novel. Phantom is a phenomenon. It’s also the exception.

Playbill calls it the “the most successful stage musical of all time.”

The Phantom of the Opera has worldwide ticket sales exceeding $3.2 billion (surpassing the highest grossing film of all time, “Titanic,” which has grossed $1.9 billion worldwide) and has been seen by over 100 million people. The winner of seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the New York production has been seen by over 10 million people and grossed over $550 million.

A top play on Broadway will break $1 million in ticket sales, and a great week on Broadway would be $20 million across 30 shows. A single movie will routinely break $20 million in its first week.

A studio spends $10 or $110 million making a movie and then an equal amount to promote it. In only a few weeks we go from having never heard of a movie to knowing quite a bit about it — for values of “we” that go as high as 300 million people. Oceans 12, a truly awful movie, cost $110 million and grossed $125 million.

What a studio is doing in those few weeks is creating a brand. And it pays off. The initial marketing creates reviews, word-of-mouth recommendations, blog comments — in general, mindshare. And the brand, in turn, generates ticket sales, foreign ticket sales, DVD sales and rentals, and, at least occasionally, a bidding war among television stations to air it, McDonalds give-aways, toys, and, last but not by any means least, sequels, remakes, and television shows (e.g., Buffy the Vampire Slayer and In the Heat of the Night). It’s fair to say that “Titanic,” “Mission Impossible,” and the James Bond series are all multi-billion-dollar enterprises.

And it’s not just the top movies. Here’s a really unscientific comparison to describe what I mean. Search for “God Grew Tired of Us,” which won a jury prize at the 2006 Sundance festival, and you get 145,000 hits. Of course they may not all be about the movie, but a spot check suggests at least the first 800 are. By contrast, “I Was Tom Cruise,” which was an Outstanding Play winner at the 2006 Fringe NYC festival has a mere 9830 hits.

What theatre does, by and large, is create brands that it then just wastes. Phantom has not. It is the exception.

Yet look again at Phantom’s stats. Its New York ticket sales of half a billion dollars, over the course of 20 years, are far less than Titanic achieved in a matter of months.

And its rights-holders are only now getting ready to “release Phantom to the stock and amateur market,” as Scatamacchia put it. What that means is that for 22 years, high schools and amateur and regional theatre companies have not been able to mount productions of it. They can’t even get the scripts, or sheet music, or information about building the sets. In fact, they have no clue what the show even looks like without traveling at least to Las Vegas to see one of the few licensed live productions of it.

And that’s true for most Broadway shows (except the Vegas part). It’s why “The Wizard of Oz” and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” are performed so often by high schools, and “Rent” and “Phantom,” enormously popular among teenagers, aren’t. It’s easy to secure the rights, scripts, and music for the one, and literally impossible to get them for the other.

Theatre survives and even thrives in New York and London because it attracts money from around the world. The most coveted orchestra seats can sell for hundreds of dollars now because rich tourists and sheiks are willing to pay for them. But in the same way that major league baseball needs the minor leagues and pro football needs the NCAA, theatre cannot flourish as a key element of our culture if it is fat and healthy only in two cities on on the planet.

Without a farm system of schools and summer camps, amateur groups and regional companies, without off-off Broadway and off-Broadway, where will future actors and directors and stage managers come from? Without a farm system, where will new scripts come from, and who will stage them?

Theatre has cut itself off from any possible ecosystem. It needs high school students turned on by theatre, learning its language and history, its great designs and performances. Any budding 15-year-old with a videocamera can rent “Citizen Kane” for $2.99 and see Welles’s groundbreaking ideas about cinematography. But if that kid wants take up her sketchpad after listening to the soundtrack to Phantom, where does she go to see its legendary set designs?

Does anyone at The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization really think that a high school production of Phantom will do anything but whet a Texan’s appetite for the real thing? To be sure, it’s possible that a really bad production would turn people off. But not only would those people probably not have ever gone to see Phantom in Las Vegas or New York or London, but we can extend the question. Does anyone at The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization really think that a videotape of a New York performance would do anything but whet a viewer’s appetite for the real thing?

And so I propose The Broadway Channel.

Broadway — and live theatrical performance in general — needs its own cable network. Take two cameras, one wide-angled and fixed, and the other one closeup on the singers, and film every show on Broadway, and every off-Broadway show as well. Show them on The Broadway Channel. Make it a vehicle for selling scripts, sheet music, and set designs. Put clips up on YouTube.

Broadcast the NYC Fringe Festival, and the Edinburgh one as well. Cabarets and nightclub acts come and go — lift them from the depths of ephemera by recording them for posterity. The ones that have a strong viewership on The Broadway Channel have a strong case for being reprised.

Run a contest for best high school productions of a drama and a musical, with prestigious judges from Broadway, the winning tape to be shown on The Broadway Channel. Create Broadway Idol, an American Idol limited to show tunes and with judges who know and care when someone is off-pitch.

Be creative. And create an ecosystem.

Posted in pop culture, the arts | Tagged: , , | 8 Comments »

Pure as the driven slush

Posted by metaphorical on 29 January 2008

I was once told, by someone in a position to know, that the largest adult video — a euphemism for “porn” — store in the U.S. was in a suburb of Salt Lake City.

If you think about it, it’s hardly surprising. But here’s a story that is so neatly perfect along those lines that if it doesn’t strain credulity, it at least stretches the known boundaries of the irony universe.

Former sanitizer of rental movies is accused of paying teens for sex

Daniel D. Thompson’s business catered to Utah residents offended by something as racy as a PG-13 movie. Now the former film sanitizer is accused of a crime by Orem police that is far more salacious than any date movie.

Thompson, 31, and Isaac R. Lifferth, 24, were arrested in Orem this week on suspicion of having sex with two 14-year-old girls. Orem police say the teenagers wanted to earn money to move out of their homes and offered sexual favors to men.

For a while, Thompson’s company, CleanFlicks (itself a kind of racy name, no?), and a later one, Flix Club, actually edited movies without anyone’s permission and rented out the cleansed versions. You can imagine it didn’t take Hollywood too long to sue. So now CleanFlicks is a kind of Netflix for “great movies in every category that don’t need any editing to be safe and enjoyable for everyone,” as its website puts it.

Anyway, back to the 14-year-olds. Apparently the girls told an older friend, herself all of 16, that they were willing to have sex for money. The friend contacted, among other people, Lifferth, who she had had sex with “on multiple occasions,” though whether for fun or profit the story doesn’t say.

Thompson formerly operated Clean Flix – a business in Orem that edited feature films to remove or alter conduct deemed inappropriate for children or discriminating movie-goers. The store closed in December after threats of legal action from Hollywood studios.

Hard as it is to imagine, the story actually gets better.

The booking documents state Thompson told the 14-year-olds that his film sanitizing business was a cover for a pornography studio. He asked the girls if they would participate in making a porn movie, but they refused, the documents state.

Police found a “large quantity” of pornographic movies inside the business, along with a keg of beer, painkillers and two cameras hooked up to a television. … He said pornography found at the business was for “personal use,” according to the documents.

I don’t know which is better, the idea that this latter-day Bowdler, who made money by cleansing movies of anything lascivious, is himself a pornographer, or, even sweeter, that this guy who made his living by raping movies would himself be guilty of statutory rape.

It does remind me, however, to remember Freud’s theories of repression. It’s not too much of a simplification to say that according to it, puritanism is often a cover for the basest of desires, often acted upon, in secret of course. It’s no coincidence that the Larry Craigs are so often engaging in the very behavior they’re busy legislating against, or that the preachers who are most aggressive in collecting money to help the poor have enriched themselves the most.

Sure, there are plenty of puritans who are sincere in their beliefs and live saintly lives. You tend, though, not to hear about them, which is consistent with the parallel virtue of Christian modesty. By the time some family-values minister or other professional Christian has made himself into a public persona by excoriating others for not living up to piously prudish ideals, he is likely to be the furthest among us from them himself.

Posted in Orwell, politics, pop culture, religion | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Entertainment ecosystems, part 1

Posted by metaphorical on 27 January 2008

I’m not sure video killed the radio star. But we know who’s killing the record store. Actually, I think in many ways the causes of the two deaths are the same, so let’s start with who killed the radio star.

One cause was the deregulation of media in the 1990s, which allowed for station consolidation. Suddenly a single company could own hundreds of stations each, and a few emerged to do so. As a consequence, we saw the emergence of national DJs, national playlists, a disregard for everything except the Top 40, and radio’s contribution to the dissolution of what we might call the ecosystem of music.

I’ll have more to say about entertainment ecosystems in a bit. Let’s turn now to the record store. Dave Larsen, a staff writer at the Dayton Daily News, had a good article this weekend asking the question, “Has digital killed the record store?”, arguing that downloaded music is eclipsing CD sales.

The growing popularity of digital music downloads could send compact discs the way of cassette tapes. Music retail stores might soon follow.

Overall music sales were up 14 percent from 2006, according to Nielsen SoundScan’s 2007 music sale figures for the U.S.

Downloaded song and album sales hit record levels in 2007, rising 45 percent and 53 percent, respectively. But explosive digital growth wasn’t enough to make up for the loss in physical CD sales, which fell nearly 19 percent.

The steady decline of CD sales in recent years has led to the demise of such retail chains as Tower Records and the Musicland Group, which operated Sam Goody, Media Play and Suncoast Motion Picture Company stores. Locally, independent retailers such as Renaissance Music Media and the original Dingleberry’s have closed.

“Most of the independent and national chains that sold CDs have gone away,” said Hans Buflod, president of the local CD Connection chain. “It’s changed drastically, especially in the last five years.”

Larsen doesn’t really go into it, but it’s the record labels who killed the small stores, by cutting deals with the big box stores, especially Wal-Mart and Best Buy. By 2003, Wal-Mart alone accounted for 20% of all major-label record sales. It did so by selling CDs at a loss for $10, to draw shoppers into the store. By 2004, it decided it didn’t need to lose money anymore, and, as Rolling Stone reported at the time, it demanded price cuts that let them sell CDs for $9.72, without a loss. (Isn’t that a great number, by the way? It doesn’t feel arbitrary or random at all.)

Instead, Larsen notes that the record labels blame illegal downloading, especially filesharing networks. And indeed, though he doesn’t mention it, the battle against college students has gotten particularly hostile in the last month or so, with the students resisting in a number of places, such as Maine, Stanford, and MIT, and even countersuing.

But he also notes the poor evidence for that claim:

However, a 2007 study by Felix Oberholzer-Gee of Harvard University and Koleman Strumpf of the University of Kansas found that file sharing has had a negligible effect on the decline in CD sales. “Moreover, by exposing users to new music, sharing may actually have increased sales,” they wrote.

I wrote about the same thing anecdotally at work back in July 2002 in an article that’s ironically no longer freely available.

But back to Larsen:

Gary Staiger, owner of Omega Music on North Main Street, blames record companies for phasing out the CD single.

“When you put out a crappy album that only has two (good) songs on it and you can go buy the two songs for a buck a piece (online), why would you spend $15.99 on the whole album,” Staiger said. “Consumers have brains.”

Competition from other sectors is a more likely explanation, according to Oberholzer-Gee and Strumpf’s statistical analysis of file sharing activity in 2002.

“A shift in entertainment spending toward recorded movies alone can largely explain the reduction in sales,” they wrote. “The sales of DVDs and VHS tapes increased by over $5 billion between 1999 and 2003. This figure more than offsets the $2.6 billion reduction in album sales since 1999.”

The rest of Larsen’s article looks at some small chains and individual stores, and their strategies for surviving.

Chain music stores for the first time dropped below 40 percent market share, falling to 36 percent from 41 percent in 2006.

Independent record stores held steady with 6 percent of the marketplace. Some independent retailers, such as Massachusetts-based Newbury Comics, have opened new stores.

“There will be physical buyers for a long, long time,” [Rob Perkins, CEO of Value Music Concepts] said. “Some people just want to touch it and feel the product and communicate with folks that are addicted to music, just like they are. That’s what these independent stores provide. We have people who spend an hour at a time in our store just looking at the product and speaking about music.”

Larsen quotes Hans Buflod, president of the local CD Connection chain, as saying,

“I think at some point in the future all music and all video and probably all books, as well, will all be available for download directly from the manufacturer.”

And sure enough, even a year ago, Wal-Mart was down to 15.8%, Best Buy’s share at 13.8%, and iTunes was a just under 10%, according to an SFGate.com story.

As it happens, I recently did a radio commentary making the exact same prediction, for DVDs — even high-definition ones. (It can be downloaded here.)

I want to linger over one thing that Perkins said:

We have people who spend an hour at a time in our store just looking at the product and speaking about music.

This is the ecosystem at work. The more people know about music, the more time — and money — they want to spend on it.

And music has never had to fight for mindshare like it does today, what with television, videogames, movies, books, YouTube, message boards, email, and so forth. At the same time, it has fewer tools than ever with which to capture that mindshare, and in particular, for people to discover new music.

Radio used to be in the center of that. Stations would promote, and in many cases sponsor, and sometimes broadcast, live events. DJs — local DJs — would interview touring singers and bands on the air. DJs played a much broader mix of music, not just the top hits as defined by record label promotion.

And music stores used to be in the center of that as well. For true fans, perhaps they still are, but a vastly greater number of music purchasers abandoned them some years ago in favor of lower prices, disregarding the meager selection. Today’s music stores — the big box stores — don’t have knowledgeable salespeople recommending stuff, and they don’t have the stuff that a knowledgeable person would recommend anyway. Walmart.com has 90,000 CDs, but the stores themselves carry only a small fraction of that.

And don’t underestimate Wal-mart’s power. According to a December article at MTV.com, “The Eagles’ Wal-Mart-only LP, Long Road Out of Eden, [debuted] at #1 on the Billboard albums chart with sales of more than 711,000 copies.”

My hunch is that movie soundtracks and now videogame music are incredibly important now because they’re one of the few ways we have of hearing something new without seeking it out. It’s not surprising that ever since at least Buffy, television shows have also been introducing new music.

The music ecosystem is vast and deep, and it includes everything from cover bands to sheet music to marching bands to high school musicals to elevators and bars and banks and your own desk when you’re placed on hold on the phone. But the traditionally biggest sources of new music for most people aren’t delivering it. The ecosystem is out of whack and new predators of people’s time, from videogames to mobile phone calls, are rushing in.

The question the major labels should ask itself is whether music fans have enough ways to find new music even when we include sampling it on file-sharing networks. The last thing the industry needs to do is shut down its last best hope for the ecology of music to find a new balance.

Posted in politics, pop culture, technology, the arts | Tagged: , , , , | 5 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 »

Fish I’s

Posted by metaphorical on 24 January 2008

Two news reports this week call into question the wisdom of eating fish, a small but important part of my diet, leaving me uncertain what to do.

Let me start by acknowledging that most people do not accept a fundamental premise of this post, namely the connection between reason and diet. Such people may pay lip-service to ideas (such as that animals think and feel and are generally sentient in a way fundamentally like ourselves) that should lead them to change their dietary habits. But the principles don’t in fact inspire any change. For most people, dietary change based on respect for animals is not, as William James put it, a genuine option. I’ll discuss that a bit later on.

I’ll start with the simpler of the two stories, reprised in an editiorial in today’s NY Times.

Tuna Troubles

Many New Yorkers have come to love the convenience, taste and aesthetic appeal of sushi. But as The Times reported Wednesday after testing tuna from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants, sushi made from bluefin tuna may contain unacceptable levels of mercury, which acts as a neurotoxin.


If you regularly eat as few as six pieces of tuna sushi a week, you may be consuming more mercury than the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

As it happens, I might be one of those people. (It’s hard to say. I have sushi 2-3 times a week, and usually include one tuna maki in my order. Is a maki 1 or maybe 2 pieces, as the Times is counting them, or all 6? Who knows. This kind of imprecision in a investigative piece is maddening.) I also sometimes have fresh tuna in other forms, such as salads.

Why do I eat fish at all? I was a strict vegan for three years, with some of the usual reasons but not all of them. In addition to concerns about my own health and that of the environment, I objected on grounds of cruelty to how animals were reared, and how they were killed, and how many were reared and killed for food. But I didn’t object, per se, to the general idea of humans killing animals for food.

Fish by and large live in the wild, and the conditions of farmed fish, such as catfish, are not the miserable ones that cattle, hogs, and chickens endure. And while death by driftnet is surely painful, it’s probably not worse than the death a fish would experience naturally. Mercury concentrations raise a big concern, but otherwise, from a health point of view, I’ve found an enormous difference between fish oil and animal fats.

So the same fish that get caught in those driftnets largely escape the net of objections that led to my veganism. Which brings us to the other report, also summarized in a Times editorial, this one from Monday.

Until All the Fish Are Gone

Scientists have been warning for years that overfishing is degrading the health of the oceans and destroying the fish species on which much of humanity depends for jobs and food. Even so, it would be hard to frame the problem more dramatically than two recent articles in The Times detailing the disastrous environmental, economic and human consequences of often illegal industrial fishing.

Sharon LaFraniere showed how mechanized fishing fleets from the European Union and nations like China and Russia — usually with the complicity of local governments — have nearly picked clean the oceans off Senegal and other northwest African countries. This has ruined coastal economies and added to the surge of suddenly unemployed migrants who brave the high seas in wooden boats seeking a new life in Europe, where they are often not welcome.

The second article, by Elisabeth Rosenthal, focused on Europe’s insatiable appetite for fish — it is now the world’s largest consumer. Having overfished its own waters of popular species like tuna, swordfish and cod, Europe now imports 60 percent of what it consumes. Of that, up to half is contraband, fish caught and shipped in violation of government quotas and treaties.

If current fishing practices are unsustainable, they are wrong. Period. And a consumer such as myself ought to consider his or her contribution to that wrong. Ultimately, it is our purchasing dollars that sustain any unsustainable practice, whether it is unsustainable in practical terms, such as mechanized fleet fishing, or in terms of cruelty, as the factory farmed cattle industry is.

The “ought” is a moral one, of course. For anyone to feel its force, however — for it to have any practical consequences on behavior — it has to be what William James called a genuine option. James, arguably the founder of modern psychology, spelled this out in a seminal essay, “The Will To Believe.” (There are copies of the essay here and here.)

Without delving too deeply into James’s theories (which deserve a post of their own, at the least), I’ll note that for him, a genuine option has to, first and foremost, be a live one. He describes live options this way:

Let us give the name of hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead A live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed. If I ask you to believe in the Mahdi, the notion makes no electric connection with your nature,–it refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all. As an hypothesis it is completely dead. To an Arab, however (even if he be not one of the Madhi’s followers), the hypothesis is among the mind’s possibilities: it is alive. This shows that deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker. They are measured by his willingness to act. The maximum of liveness in hypothesis means willingness to act irrevocably. Practically, that means belief; but there is some believing tendency wherever there is willingness to act at all.

The example an interesting one. My first year as a grad student, I taught discussion sections for the big Intro to Philosophy class. The instructor was the department chair, Laird Addis, a proselytizing atheist. Though an atheist myself, I found his hard-sell offputting and his condemnations of religion alienating. He did, though, offer our clean-scrubbed Iowa farmboys and -girls a useful thought experiment. “Would you be a Christian if you were born in India or Iran or China or Cambodia?” he asked. “Surely the odds would be a lot lower.”

Custom, culture, habit, and peer pressure combine to give us many of the beliefs we have. My own odds of being an atheist would surely be lower were I not a third-generation one.

James himself says,

It is only our already dead hypotheses that our willing nature is unable to bring to life again. But what has made them dead for us is for the most part a previous action of our willing nature of an antagonistic kind. When I say ‘willing nature,’ I do not mean only such deliberate volitions as may have set up habits of belief that we cannot now escape from,–I mean all such factors of belief as fear and hope, prejudice and passion, imitation and partisanship, the circumpressure of our caste and set.

I live eternally in the hope that my fellow humans can cast off our prejudices and passions, imitations and partisanships, and the circumpressures of caste and set, and see cows, hogs, and chickens as we see dolphins and dachshunds. For my part, I’m going to rethink the question of tuna, yellowtail, and the even the shrimp that go into my tempura rolls.

Posted in animal-rights, journalism, language, philosophy, politics, pop culture, religion, Times-watch | 6 Comments »

The point of a caucus is to win delegates (no, really). Part II

Posted by metaphorical on 21 January 2008

[This post is a continuation of the previous one. Longtime reader K.G.S.’s comment made me appreciate that some of the sordid details would be useful here.]

As a grad student at the University of Iowa in 1980, a presidential election year, I seized the chance to go to the nation’s first contest. It was my first and only time at a party caucus, and it gave me an appreciation for all the things that the news media don’t tell you about it — stuff that’s needed to understand the results. Almost 30 years later, the reporting is, if possible, worse.

For example, in Iowa, at that time, you could vote in either party’s caucus, regardless of registration. The media never reports this. In fact, you didn’t even have to be 18 at the time, so long as you would be 18 at the time of the general election. The media never reports this.

Because, that year, Carter’s renomination was pretty much assured (despite a challenge by Ted Kennedy), I went to where the action was, the Johnson County courthouse, where the Republicans were caucusing. There, along with a bunch of other people, some of whom were surely registered Democrats like me, John Anderson picked up a bunch of delegates. As he did elsewhere; his second-place finish in the state was a shock to the media, who didn’t understand who was voting.

In Nevada today, you have to be registered to the party you’re going to vote for (17-year-olds who will be 18 on Election Day can make a party registration in advance), but otherwise the rules seem to be a lot like Iowa’s. There’s one in particular that’s very important. Here’s the rule, for the Democratic caucus, from a web page at the office of the Nevada Secretary of State:

Basic Caucus Process: Caucus participants will indicate which candidate they support. The precinct caucus chair will then announce which candidates have the most support and which candidates do not have enough support to meet the “viability” threshold. Caucus participants who support a candidate who is not viable and has not met the threshold of support to continue will then realign themselves with their second choice candidate. Based on the size of the presidential preference groups in support of one candidate or another, the delegates to the county convention are apportioned.

Here’s how it worked in Iowa in 1980. Say there were 80 attendees at the caucus, 10 delegates to be chosen, and 8 candidates. We voted by standing in one part of the room or another. It basically took 8 votes to get a delegate. Let’s say candidates A, D, and F got only 5, 3, and 2 votes respectively. Everyone else got at least close to 10, say 8 or 9 at a minimum. Then A, D, and F, were dropped out, and those people chose their favorite candidate among the remaining ones, and moved to that part of the room. Now we counted again, and tried to apportion delegates fairly. You can see there are times when you might get 2 delegates with only, say, 14 votes, or only get 2 delegates with, say, 19 votes. That’s a 5-vote swing. Similarly, in round 1, candidate A got 5 votes, but by the end, ended up with 0, also a 5-vote swing.

The Nevada Republicans, by the way, hold a beauty contest by secret-ballot, where you really do just straight-up vote for the candidate you want. For them, at least, the “popular vote” has some meaning. But you can see why, as the Democrats do things, the popular vote is meaningless. As the Secretary of State website explicitly says,

Caucus systems are not set up to be a one person one vote system. Rather, they are designed to allocate delegates to only those candidates with a threshold of support that is based on the number of people participating in a caucus.

In other words, as my previous post said in its title, the point of a caucus is to win delegates. And “popular vote” total is meaningless, because it’s fungible, because it’s messed around with to get a fair awarding of delegates. Because (everyone, say it with me this time): The point of a caucus is to win delegates. No. Really.

Posted in journalism, politics, Times-watch | Leave a Comment »

The point of a caucus is to win delegates (no, really)

Posted by metaphorical on 21 January 2008

It seems obvious, but it apparently needs to be said: The point of a caucus is to win delegates. Primaries where winning the popular vote doesn’t result in getting the most delegates are called “beauty contests,” and the term is a pejorative.

I only mention this because Reuters, the New York Times, NPR, and who knows how many other news outlets reported the results of Saturday’s Democratic caucuses in Nevada wrong.

The Times headline was

McCain and Clinton Capture Tough Wins

yet the subhead said:

Obama 2nd, but Takes 1 More Delegate

And you thought the statements that started this post were so obvious as to be not worth mentioning. The winner, according to the Times, is the candidate who wins the beauty contest aspect; the person who wins the most delegates is said to have come in 2nd.

Here’s Reuters:

McCain and Clinton look to next battle

By John Whitesides, Sun Jan 20, 8:06 AM ET

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) – Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton looked on Sunday toward the next battles in a chaotic White House race after scoring tough wins in the first presidential voting in the U.S. South and West.


In Nevada’s Democratic race, Clinton beat Barack Obama in a close struggle…

Caucuses are funny things, and big national publications based in states that don’t do them seem to be missing vital clues about how they work and what they mean. They don’t report whether you have to be a member of the party to vote in the party’s caucus, which frankly is the most important fact there is to know. They don’t report whether delegates are locked to a candidate, or free to vote as they choose in the later rounds of delegate selection (yes, there are later rounds, in some states).

They sometimes don’t report, in fact, how many delegates a candidate won at all — we should count ourselves lucky that we even got told enough that we could suss out that Obama won. Maybe they thought that having one candidate win one thing, but another candidate win another, was too complicated. And it would upset their later tallies of how many primaries and caucuses each candidate won. Roger Maris-like asterisks are messy.

How did the news media come to decide, en masse, that the popular vote was the important one in Nevada? I have no idea. Had they made a similar determination in November 2000, perhaps we’d have had a different president for the past 7 years. Would that they had. Or, better, would that they just report the news fairly, evenly, and without stripping it of its complexity and nuance.

[This post has a Part II, here]

Posted in journalism, language, politics, Times-watch | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Caution, dolphins at play

Posted by metaphorical on 20 January 2008

How do private experiences become public? How do we know what others are thinking? Mainly, we infer intentionality. We see things in the world as objects of an intention, and we see some activity as behavior directed toward a goal, as motivated by some desire or need.

Doing so seems impossible. We infer at once both the desire and the desirability, ignoring the Catch-22, chicken-and-egg nature of such an inference.

The problem is particularly acute when the activity is a game. Here, there is no obvious need or desire, such as food or sexual pleasure. Here, we need to discern as well as a desire, such as to win, the rules of the game itself, or at least to discern its nature as a game. Yet in Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein argues that we do this successfully all the time, even as children.



How do we know what animals are thinking? The same way. Take a look at this video of dolphins playing (thanks, Paul, for the link) and see if the behavior depicted doesn’t seem intentional. We infer intentionality to mammals all the time, whether pets in our homes or animals on the farm.

Cats and cattle alike seem to have food preferences, and favorite places to lie down and enjoy the sunshine of a beautiful spring day. We build shelters for farm animals and expect them to use them on their own in bad weather. Cattle aren’t as smart, beautiful, and playful as these dolphins. But they still deserve our respect as fellow sentient creatures. How we make their lives miserable and kill them for profit and convenience is still a puzzle to me.

Posted in animal-rights, language, pop culture | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by metaphorical on 19 January 2008

“I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.” — Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer was a real hero for me growing up and the Spassky match was a highlight, a moment when knowing chess was an admired talent and the rest of the world was, for just a moment, envious of us geeks. That wouldn’t happen again, to my experience, until the dot-com era.

I was three years old when my father taught me how to play chess, and was 15 the year that Fischer beat Spassky and I beat my father even-up for the first time.

The Spassky games were shown on television and an unknown third-rate chess master, Shelby Lyman, came out of nowhere to do a play-by-play commentary that made a rook combination as exciting as a Red Barber description of a double play.

Fischer once said, “The turning point in my career came with the realization that Black should play to win instead of just steering for equality.” I just replayed the game of the century, Fischer’s game against Donald Byrne in the 1956 Rosenwald Tournament. Fischer had the black pieces. Has there ever been a game with more uncaptured unprotected material? He played to win.

I had forgotten that there were two triple-exclamation-point moves in that game, and a double-exclamation-point move as well. Fischer’s queen sacrifice comes six moves after the Na4 gambit that my father thought was the greatest single move in chess history.

Fischer was 13 years old.

“You have to have the fighting spirit. You have to force moves and take chances.” — Bobby Fischer

In the same way that I don’t care that Tom Cruise is a Scientologist and rants and raves on couches, I just enjoy his movies, so too I really don’t care that Fischer was a paranoid anti-Semite who gouged out his fillings to stop the CIA from poisoning him with mercury. I loved his chessplaying.

Fischer’s games are like Cezanne paintings, simple, clear brushstrokes that seem inevitable and ever so easy, until you try to do it yourself. They will endure for as long as people are playing chess.

“Chess is life.” — Bobby Fischer

Posted in pop culture, the arts | 2 Comments »

What a difference a comma makes

Posted by metaphorical on 17 January 2008

My favorite example of punctuation placement is a sentence that, as far as I know, was invented by Mitch Wagner to prove the need for the serial comma: “This novel is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Another favorite example is a sign I used to see in Iowa City when I was a grad student there.


“Look,” I used to tell my Intro to Logic students. “Not only will parking violators not be prosecuted, but they’re nice enough to post a sign saying so.”

I thought of each of these yesterday when I read “Interest Fades in the Once-Mighty V-8,” by Bill Vlasic, in the NY Times.

Ford executives said they had at times wrestled with the decision to give up V-8s in some models, including a new sedan from the Lincoln luxury division, because they worried about customer reaction.

“I worked on the Lincoln Continental program 20 years ago, and people were vehement that it had to have a V-8,” said Mark Fields, Ford’s president for the Americas. “But now people don’t really care if the performance is there.”

Whoa, that’s a full 180 degree u-turn of ambiguity.

Which is it, Bill? People don’t care about the performance anymore? Or that’s all they care about?

Posted in journalism, language, pop culture, Times-watch, writing | 3 Comments »

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 »

Circus Circus, Liar Liar

Posted by metaphorical on 16 January 2008


Unite with Circus Circus while we help in conserving the natural resources of our land. For our NEW GUESTS, bathroom towels are freshly laundered. As part of our commitment to the environment, we offer you the option of reusing your towels. Throughout your stay, we will replace the towels which are left on the floor and in the shower. Towels remaining on the rack or hanging will be left for use again. For any SPECIAL REQUEST, please contact our Housekeeping Department at Ext. 702.

You’ve seen the notices in many, if not most of the hotels and motels you stay in these days: we’ll only wash the used towels when you want us to, in the interests of the environment.

I wish I had kept track — I think maybe once this was actually done. Maybe never. It certainly didn’t happen at Circus Circus. I don’t know why this happens and I don’t really care. I just want these signs to tell the truth, or in the absence of that, for them to go away.

I’d feel guilty about picking on Circus Circus except they had a second inaccurate sign. The cost of broadband was, according to one of these standup cards on the desk, $10.99, which was already more than I’ve ever paid for an Internet connection in a hotel or motel, and it was exactly $10.99 more expensive than the Days Inn in Arizona I had stayed in the night before my first in Circus Circus. Oh, and the sign was wrong – the actual charge was $11.99, which is exactly $11.99 more than the Super 8 motel I stayed in the night before the Days Inn stay.

It’s a commonplace that expensive hotels charge for broadband and the cheap ones don’t. Circus Circus manages to combine the worst of both – it’s at the low end as casinos on The Strip go, and charges the max for a broadband service that was so bad that when I complained about the two times it was down for hours, I was refunded the charge for both days.

Anyway, back to conservation. There’s only one hotel I’ve stayed in in the U.S. that really gets it right, a place whose name I can’t even remember in downtown Los Angeles that’s within walking distance of the convention center. It’s owned, or at least run, by a European fellow who set the policy: they don’t even make up the room unless you ask. (If you do ask, it’s no problem and they make the room up just fine.) Or you can just get fresh towels. Or whatever. But the default is that the room is made up only between stays. Why is that not true everywhere? You don’t change the sheets at home every day.

After my first stay in the Los Angeles place I began to tell hotels not to make up the room at all from time to time. I’m not sure why I don’t do it all the time. Except it’s a hassle. Why should the rational policy be the one that’s a hassle? Welcome to America, where that’s the rule, not the exception, be it ice in beverages, cream in coffee, cheese in almost anything, and reusing, recycling, and conserving just about everything.

Posted in language | 27 Comments »