Politics, Technology, and Language

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

Archive for March, 2008

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 »

A Brief History of History

Posted by metaphorical on 3 March 2008

Are students abysmally ignorant? Of course they are. Are they more abysmally ignorant than ever? That’s not so clear. The NY Times is far from the only publication taking a new survey at face value, but it does such an exemplary job of it, let’s start with them.

History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens


Published: February 26, 2008

Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic questions about history and literature during a recent telephone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one-quarter thought that Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World sometime after 1750, not in 1492.

The results of the survey, released Tuesday, demonstrate that a significant proportion of American teenagers live in “stunning ignorance” of history and literature, according to the group that commissioned it. Known as Common Core, the organization describes itself as a new, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization that will press for more teaching of the liberal arts in American public schools.

We get the usual litany of teen ignorance: one-fourth failed to identify Adolf Hitler, only 4 out of ten 10
could pick the name of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” from a list of titles, and “only about half knew that in the Bible, Job is known for his patience in suffering.”

It seems to me that in a nation where half of all adults reject the truth of evolution in favor of the six-day theory of creation, the fewer teens who know their Bible the better. But let’s leave that aside.

Arguably the two most serious educators in the new group are its co-chairs, Antonia Cortese, of the American Federation of Teachers, and Diane Ravitch, who now teaches in at the Steinhardt School of Education of New York University but was assistant secretary of education in the elder Bush’s administration. According to the Times, they’re leading the charge against NCLB.

The group argues that President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law has impoverished America’s public school curriculum by holding schools accountable for student scores on annual tests in reading and math but in no other subjects.

But over on the History News Network, Ravitch wrote

I cannot now speak for the board, as the organization is just getting underway and board members have yet to articulate their areas of agreement and disagreement.

The Times later says:

In a joint introduction to their report, Ms. Cortese and Dr. Ravitch did not directly blame the No Child law for the dismal survey results, but argued that the law has led schools to focus too narrowly on reading and math, thereby crowding time out of the school day for history, literature and other subjects.

“The nation’s education system has become obsessed with testing and basic skills because of the requirements of federal law, and that is not healthy,” Ms. Cortese and Dr. Ravitch said.

Yes, certainly Ravitch, and probably the rest of Common Core, take issue with the way NCLB tests knowledge.

However, it is increasingly clear that the law’s relentless focus on raising scores in the basic skills of reading and math has the effect of reducing time for all other studies.

But she also says,

The board of CC is not opposed to testing. We view it as a necessary but not sufficient part of education.

I would prefer to see development and implementation of more thoughtful kinds of testing than those that are now in general use; in particular, I would hope for new tests that call on students to describe, analyze, explain, and demonstrate what they know and can do, not just asking them to pick a bubble.

That’s a lot more nuanced a view than the Times represents. But let’s cut to the chase.

Are things getting worse? And is NCLB to blame? Prof. Ravitch doesn’t seem to entirely think so. She wrote,

it appears to me that the telephone sample of 2007 were somewhat better informed than their parents’ generation of 1986. In 1986, only 32% knew that the American Civil War occurred in the half-century between 1850-1900 (this was NOT a trick question!); now, 43% do. In 1986, 64% could identify the main holding of the Brown v. Board of Education decision; now, 71% can. On most questions of a factual nature, the proportion who answered correctly was either higher or the same, seldom lower. So perhaps the pressure to improve history education over the past 20 years was making some headway.

NCLB is not uniquely responsible for causing loss of knowledge of history. The 1986 survey demonstrates that the problems of “I don’t know” existed long before NCLB.

The Times couldn’t be bothered to compare the 2007 survey with the 1986 results, even though it knew enough of the earlier study to say, of the newer one, “The questions were drawn from a test administered by the federal government in 1986.”

The point of history, the Times, sadly, needs to be told, is to learn from it.

The Times even acknowledged, though it didn’t know what to make of it, that in the 2007 study, “Ninety-seven percent of teenagers correctly picked Martin Luther King Jr.” as the man who said, “I have a dream,” and an astonishing four-fifths of all teens knew the plot of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The lesson seems clear: students learn what we teach them. But the newspaper of record would rather take a swipe at No Child Left Behind in the course of an article that, starting with its headline of “History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens,” mainly consists of blaming the victim.

Posted in education, journalism, pop culture, religion, the arts, Times-watch | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

A Modest Proposal: The Netflix Jury

Posted by metaphorical on 3 March 2008

I blog at work, and it can be a close call whether to post something here or there. So from time to time, I’ll be providing a note and link to ones that end up there.

I received a questionnaire for jury duty yesterday in the mail. It wasn’t a summons, though surely it will lead to that. I don’t mind. Serving on a jury is one of our few civic duties, a cornerstone of free and fair trials, which itself is a cornerstone of democracy.

The notice says that my name was culled at random from voter registration, driver registration, unemployment, or other social service records. I have no problem with that. But it did make me stop and think. That’s not a bad way to come up with a jury of my peers – I do, after all, vote, drive, and rely on the social safety net from time to time. But to really come up with a jury of my peers, how about getting records from Netflix?


Posted in pop culture, technology, the arts | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »