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October 23, 2009

ken kaiser and the future

This is kinda sportsy, but I'll try to stretch it into significance for all the people, sports fans or not.

I just caught the better portion of a radio interview with Ken Kaiser, an umpire with a long and storied career.  He was a guest because, in the MLB post-season to this point, there have been enough blown calls to raise the issue of exactly when umpires should be deferring to video cameras and sensors and other technological devices.

It was great to hear Kaiser speak because he captures the voice of the sports heroes of his age: the earthy eloquence and the sentence that would only be moving in a personal context.  He talks like a movie, and he definitely avoided the more usual cliches and stuck to obscure ones.  But I was most impressed with Kaiser's urgency and purpose — to paraphrase, "Everyone's talking about all this stuff and you're the first one to interview me!"  With the clamor for increased slo-mo backstopping of the umpiring of the game, no one, in Kaiser's opinion, gave a whit about the opinions of the men who have been umpiring for a good part of the sport's 140 year tenure.  And his protestations (he is, as you would imagine, opposed to slo-mo in all cases accept fan interference, because with fan interference it is impossible to "get an angle it") raise an interesting point for all of us.

As time passes, the transmission of trades, be they umpiring or anything else, gets tripped up by technology.  When Kaiser came up he learned from the umpires before him, and now at the end of his career the threat of instant replay, of laser-defined strike zones, has Kaiser worried about the effect on the greater game.  "The human element" is how it's traditionally phrased — is baseball really the place where we want the judgment of an actual human to become irrelevant?  Do we want the outside corner of the strike zone to be a question of micrometers or of eyeballs?

And to spin this into the everyday, do we want to get a moving violation for blowing a red light because a camera got tripped, or because a cop at the end of his shift in a bad mood didn't like the look on our face when we drove by?  Are applications of technology being applied meaningfully, or are they being applied in some cases just because it's possible to apply them?  One example that I am particularly grouchy about is extending cellular service to subway cars.  Is there a legitimate need for that?  I say that the social contract of a peaceable-as-possible commute outweighs the "because-we-can", and I think that the public safety arguments for extending the coverage are just cover for cellular service providers lobbying to have more places where consumers can use, and pay for, their services.

Ultimately, it's not a question with a clear-cut answer, and I'm not even sure where I fall on it.  (For every cell-phones-on-subways, there is a useful medical application that saves lives.)  But it's a question that's going to be answered shortly, because the technology that can be inserted into these situations is already ubiquitous.  So it can be answered with our input or without.  That's where we're at.

I'm not sure exactly when it was that the "robots are putting me out of work" fear began, but what used to be paranoia is now much less so.

Posted by mrbrent at 5:06 PM

ask the ghost of katherine graham about enemies lists

Looking back, I am unsatisfied with the Fox News diatribe from yesterday, and so I will now supplement it with a generous pullquote from the work of Joe Conason, who is much better at this than I am:
In short, the Obama White House has ample reason to question whether Fox News Channel is a news organization that can be expected to treat a Democratic administration with fairness and balance.  All they have accomplished so far is to inflame the right-wing base and renew the alliance of the Clinton era between right-wing media and mainstream outlets.  Pundits and producers who claim to see no difference between their own outlets and Fox News are certainly entitled to express their opinions (and to insult themselves and their colleagues) as they see fit.  But when they join the Fox chorus lumping Obama with Nixon, they need to be corrected.

That's exactly what I meant.  Conason goes on to a little compare and contrast with the Nixon administration, which is very interesting if you want to see how an "enemies list" actually functions.

Also, my post was not as funny as I'd liked, so I will also supplement it with this post from Alex Pareene tangentially on the same subject, but with much more laffs than I managed, comparing John Stossel's moonlighting to the career of Michael Moore:

But!  John Stossel is different!  He is not fat, first of all, and second of all he has a mustache, and thirdly it is considered a corrective to "liberal bias" to have a dude straight-up lying to prove conservative points on your newscast.

Obviously he is much more at home on Fox, where they only pretend to be unbiased for the purposes of annoying people like us.  So the fact that Stossel is actively promoting and co-hosting this Americans For Prosperity anti-health care event is not even really News.

I'll try harder in the future.  Maybe starting Monday?

Posted by mrbrent at 10:06 AM

good morning 10.23.09

David Kurtz is darn tootin' to point this out:

McClatchy: "Suicide bomber strikes suspected nuclear weapons site in Pakistan"

Because by gum that's one chilling headline, right, and not in the "dude" sense of the word.

But, no matter how untenable the sit rep is on the ground in Pakistan, I will say after brief thought that I can't really think of a whole lot of schemes to snatch fissionable material that have "suicide bomber" as a central element.  Maybe I read too many thrillers, but I just don't see it, both because of the "suicide" part being counterproductive, and the "bomber" part being even moreso.

No, the will not be one of the end of the world scenarios that will keep me from concentrating today.  But I will add it to my scrapbook of the coolest headlines ever.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:02 AM

October 22, 2009

the jeff dunham show

If you live here in the big city, you see a lot of wheatpasted advertising, usually on the plywood barriers put up over construction sites or renovations.  This one campaign that I see on the walk to the office is for some new television show.  From what I can glean, the show celebrates the talents of a ventriloquist.  One of the characters (dummies?) that is featured prominently is a big skeleton wearing a turban whose name is "Achmed" (which I assume is [sic] on purpose).  This Achmed character has a catchphrase, I take it, which goes something like, "Silence!  I KEEL you!"

A strange thing to see in Manhattan, where even dipshit assholes are actually smarter than a fifth grader.  And I'm all for making fun of terrorists!  Mockery is pretty emasculating when wielded properly.  But this seems much more in the vein of the WWII-era "dirty Jap" than it does Jonathan Swift.  In fact, it sounds like the dumbest fucking thing that ever got a series order, and I'm counting Leno's current slo-mo trainwreck.

I guess "The Hollywood Squares" isn't hiring these days.

Posted by mrbrent at 7:20 PM

fox news boo hoo

The uproar over the administration calling Fox News out for not exactly hewing to ordinary precepts of journalism is exactly the uproar that Fox News likes to bathe in every morning.  They may pretend to some moral purpose that extends to voicing the concerns of the grassroots conservatives (a flatly ridiculous concept) but the truth is Fox News crosses the line by engaging in push polls, provocatively framing stories and generally breaking the editorial/reporting wall.  Not that there is anything wrong with this — it's business like any other, baby, supply and demand — but the protestations for being correctly identified are protest too much.

If Fox News is concerned about any damn thing other than its market share and the corresponding ad rates it can charge, I will eat something non-delicious, like a Big Mac.

Which is why it is disappointing to see representatives of organizations like NPR and the New York Times harsh on the administration for doing so.  I understand that journalists will protect their fellows, but it only stands to reason that, if Fox News wants to behave like Rush Limbaugh, then the subjects of the coverage accord Fox News the same privileges they would accord Rush Limbaugh.

I mean, isn't this all on the near side of obvious?  Let Fox News carry water all by themselves.  Heaven forfend.

Posted by mrbrent at 11:02 AM

berkely breathed

I'd been meaning to link up this "Where Is He Now" feature on Berkely Breathed, but, thanks to Maud for pointing the way to it, I can instead link to an actual interview with Breathed, which I find even more useful.

Breathed was truly a titan during the heyday of "Bloom County", and the strip introduced a truly vicious streak to the medium, along with his wit and prescience.  At his best, Breathed wasn't just commenting, he was despising the subject of the commentary.  I think that his contributions have largely been forgotten, but I'd put him right behind Letterman (who knows a thing or two about loathing) as far as shaping sensibilities at the time.

Also, he has a preposterous name, and America loves preposterous names.

Posted by mrbrent at 11:02 AM

good morning 10.22.09

You know what you get when you decide to get some stuff done in the kitchen before you head to the subway?  You get late to work is what you get, and that describes this guy with two thumbs right here!

I will say, however, that my beautiful wife's suggestion to actually add more chicken to the chicken chili was genius and something I never would have dreamed up by myself.  It is now an all the more formidable chicken chili.

So then the morning is not a total washout.  Plus also, someone finally figured out what's missing from all the crop circles in England — aliens!  And not the little gray ones, either, but tall blond fast ones!

Every morning should start with tall blond fast aliens.

[Link via Dr Ubiquity.]

Posted by mrbrent at 10:37 AM

October 21, 2009

it's in the rain out there

The Awl picks this and pulls a very poignant anecdote involving John F. Kennedy considering the fallout from nuclear testing, but I'm picking it for the enormity of its implications.

On an anecdotal level, I've noticed a whole lot of exotic cancers affecting people I know, or people known by the people I know — the numbers, severity and statistical anomalies of which have been mind-boggling.  Glioblastomas, pancreatic cancers and scads of breast cancers have seemingly been sprinkled on the population as if by an angry and careless god, and, in conversation with my elders, it seems that this is a new thing.  Of course, the new thing could be the result of improved diagnostics and the identifying of cancers formerly diagnosed as something else.  But logically, another possibility is a wholly novel onset of increased incidence of cancer, which raises the question of why?  Is it just random, or is something causing it?

The article referenced above is a story by Walter Shapiro of covering a press conference called to reveal findings purportedly linking cancer mortality to the Strontium-90 blasted into the atmosphere by the mid-century above-ground nuclear bomb tests.  Shapiro was the only journalist attending.

The grain of salt is that the study has not yet passed peer review, a process which could take some time.  And the bigger grain of salt is that cherry-picking scientific studies is a road to hell down which fools travel.  But, on a speculative level, what if the legacy of our nuclear arsenal is a couple of generations of more scary cancer suffered by innocents?

That'd be a pretty big story, for someone with more time/better research chops than I have.

Posted by mrbrent at 1:58 PM

angus mcleod explains past century

Boing Boing is right — these two brief comic strips (pages?) succinctly and accurately overview of each of the first world war and the one right after that.  Which, as wars go, were really confusing affairs, with shifting alliances and global theaters and all.  And these spell out the narratives of each, in the easy-to-remember (and cute!) cartoon format.

And IMO the artist seems to call the wars right down the middle, as far as historical bias goes, which is a relief is you are the product of an American public education, which leaves you with the impression that all global events revolved around the actions of the U.S.  (And which I got to compare and contrast with a museum in the former East Berlin, which showed that WWII was started, finished and generally ass-kicked by the USSR.)

Angus McLeod is the name of the artist responsible, and it's a damn fine job.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:00 AM

distracted everything

As loathe as I am to support your basic cops-set-up-enforcement-trap scenarios (they're like cheating!), if the police want to go after cell phone drivers I am all for that.  As an experienced and safe operator of a motor vehicle, felony stupid events with drivers yapping on a phone as they weave lanes or blow stop signs have increased geometrically over the past decade, and the idea of every last one of them pulled over and written a ticket fills my little heart with joy.  You'd find me there with a lawn chair and some popcorn if I had more leisure time.

And as long as we're at it, let's crack down on the cell-phone walkers too.  This may seem petty, but if you live in an urban environment where walking is your primary means of locomotion, you have a number of horror stories of near-misses caused by phone-talkers/iPodders who forget basic rules against suddenly stopping, maintaining steady pace, etc.  It's not the same as driving — you won't accidentally kill someone by walking distractedly — but walking isn't really that hard at all!  And if you can't manage that, then what's left to do poorly?  Breathing?

Yes, I know: kids, lawn, yawn.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:00 AM

October 20, 2009

a tipping point party and you're all invited

I have not yet succumbed to the e-reader.  First of all, I haven't experienced a significant amount of inconvenience with these pieces of paper with writing on them that I carry around.  Really.  Sometimes the amount of paper I carry around is of an unwieldy weight, but that's one of those little obstacles that I like because they're insurmountable and besides, gravity's to blame.

Second of all, too much onerous DRM and too many competing formats that are incompatible with each other: the idea of paying for books broken down into ones and zeros and then having the file become obsolete before the time I want to reread the book is not an attractive idea to me.  Maybe once we see if VHS or Beta wins I'll ask for a reader for X-Mas.

But, as part of the hoopla concerning Barnes & Noble's entry into the field of readers, I received a bit of email marketing announcing the new gizmo (the Soot? the Dookie?) that contained this caveat:

Pre-order today and receive a free eBook of Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point.

I was going to also bring up the point of books as artifacts, but... I get a free Malcolm Gladwell?  I'm buying an armful of those little fuckers.

Posted by mrbrent at 3:44 PM

manny howard: cooking like a man

As long as we are building up and not tearing down this afternoon, give Manny Howard's feature on How To Cook Like A Man a shot.  It's a little like tee-ball, the intersection of Man and food writing, and the shortcuts are many and tempting, yet trite as shit.  Manny avoids them, and gives the art of food preparation proper respect:
Why, after all, do we try to master any skill?  An honest answer: So we can say we have.  But, as food sustains us, cooking may be the only exception.  There are really two motives for cooking well: There is showing off, and there is self-reliance.  I have cooked paella for 50 on a Weber grill, never having once attempted to prepare the dish even on the stove before.  I have marched past the pizzeria on the way home from a long day at work and the gym and been perfectly satisfied picking at steamed broccoli over seasoned sushi rice, standing alone at the kitchen counter while listening to the evening news.  One gets you respect, one gets you fed.  Both bring joy.

Word to that.  And the tips and pointers that he goes on to list are righteous and I don't disagree with them at all.  And I've eaten the food prepared by Manny Howard on occasion, so I can vouch that he is no joke.

It is laid out confusingly, like a mini-blog with content always one click more than you'd like away, but that's not Manny's fault — that's the publisher's fault.  But I do hope to see it book-form some day.

Posted by mrbrent at 11:42 AM

publishing, art, go

One-two punch, as Warren Ellis thinks out loud:
Here’s a possibility to turn around in your head: print isn’t dying, so much as it’s becoming much less interesting and useful.  Buying a magazine that’s two-thirds ads is not interesting, nor it is often terribly useful.  Buying a magazine that’s two months behind the internet is neither interesting nor useful.  Buying a magazine that is simply shitfuck ugly is neither interesting nor useful . Buying a magazine so bereft of content that it doesn’t outlive a single sitting on the bog is neither interesting nor useful.  Right there, I’ve tagged a lot of magazines on your local newsagent’s shelf.  But that does not eliminate all magazines.

An interesting perspective: the slow skid of the magazine industry becomes self-fulfilling prophecy as talk of looming obsolescence freaks industry into sucking itself into an early grave.  Kind of like the time-travel revenge of the Higgs bosun, yes?

And then four paragraphs later:

The other day, writer Melissa Gira Grant was hanging around in a coffee shop in New York, and twittered that she was there.  And if you went to visit her, she’d spend five minutes reading to you from her diary — on the condition that you recorded none of it on the net. No twitter, no flickr, no blogging, no nothing.  The exchange for her time was to keep the experience physical, not digital.

And you know what?  That's just nifty.  I try to avoid pretentious statements of art-fact, but I am strongly approving of that and will shut up not lest this constitute blogging about it.  But on a sidenote, I know that back when we had our little variety show we tried to implement a no-video policy, because it seemed to us that when it came to the arts that are performed in front of you by brick-and-mortar people, either you saw it or you didn't.  And even if you saw it, the only impressions of it you have will be neural — leave only a warm spot in the bleacher seating, take only memories.

I'm just looking to jumpstart this stupid brain I got up there behind my eyes.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:36 AM

October 19, 2009

good morning 10.20.09

For the first time I can remember I was kind of hoping for a sick passenger or a train to hop the tracks.  I have a hard enough time making a dent in the New York Times in the morning commute (that's a lot of words), but lately they've taken to running features with a whole lot more words than usual, and when they're attention-grabbing, then holy-moe-that's-my-stop! and then a month later I have a stack of old papers that rivals the stack of unread New Yorkers I used to have.

This morning: part three of David Rohde's first-person account of being kidnapped by the Taliban and eventually rescued (which does not happen to reporters every day no matter what your reporter friends might tell you) and then a book excerpt from financial reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin concerning the collapse of Lehman Brothers from way back in 2008.  I've read exactly one of these, and I liked it — it steers itself through momentousness pretty deftly.  And if the other one doesn't read like "The Bridge Over The River Kwai", then it is a failure!  Or at least not the story I want to read.  Maybe this sick passenger event will befall me this evening?

Yes.  I am a homer for the New York Times.  Good morning.

Posted by mrbrent at 2:52 PM

george tuska

You may not know who George Tuska was — even few comic book fans know who George Tuska was.  Tuska was an ubiquitous presence in comic books in the 70s when I was a little kid and had an eye for things.  He was an illustrator and his style is immediately recognizable, but he is not really considered in the same league with Jack Kirby or any other artist the pop-culturally aware would recognize.  In fact, he was kind of a hack, if you look at it like we did as twelve year-olds arguing over it.

He passed away last week, and comics historian Mark Evanier takes a moment not only to remember Tuska but also to give it up for the hacks:

Often, one sees the work of a comic book creator dismissed as "hackwork," done by someone who clearly didn't care and just slopped it out as rapidly as possible to get the check. My own observation is that in comics, that is rarely the case.  Bad work is done, of course, all the time.  Some people just aren't that talented and many are miscast, assigned to the wrong material with the wrong collaborators.  In the seventies, I had a memorable (and troubling) lunch with one of Mr. Tuska's contemporaries who was then having trouble getting work.  He had drawn many wonderful comics in the past but his current art was disjointed and full of odd staging and distortions.  "I'm trying to give the editors what they want," he told me ruefully.  "But no matter how many times they explain what they want, I never know what they're talking about."

Whether or not you grew up with the Tuskas and the Chic Stones and the Jim Aparos, there is an abundance of humanity in their stories, as funny books went from the newsstand to the direct market to a vehicle for celebrity.  I may have spoken ill of George Tuska's work when I was snot-nosed, but he really did a hell of a lot without acclaim or riches.

And Evanier has become the conduit between that first (and second) generation of comic book artists and writers who history left behind and all of us yahoo fans, and he deserves considerable props for his conservation efforts.

Posted by mrbrent at 8:59 AM

cameron todd willingham

If you are curious about the spate of stories on Texas Governor Rick Perry, then what you need to do is to start with this excellent New Yorker feature by David Gran about Cameron Todd Willingham and capital punishment in the State of Texas.

The short version of the feature is that Texas executed an innocent man.  And Perry is newsworthy because he is interfering with an inquiry that would determine that he signed a death warrant on an innocent man.  He's up for re-election and in a competitive primary race, and for some reason thinks that Texas GOP voters would give a shit one way or the other if the state killed an innocent man.

You've probably already read the story.  I know that I was late coming to it.  Regardless of whatever happens to Perry, I think that all the world should be well aware of the fact that the State of Texas executed an innocent man.

Posted by mrbrent at 7:01 AM

October 18, 2009

secret service overload

Equivalency dictates that I not point out that the current noxious environment of civil discourse may indeed be laid at the feet of one specific subgroup of people.  In fact, it would be impolite of me to do anything other than to quote this without context:
The unprecedented number of death threats against President Obama, a rise in racist hate groups, and a new wave of antigovernment fervor threaten to overwhelm the US Secret Service, according to government officials and reports, raising new questions about the 144-year-old agency’s overall mission.

Count me in with the leading lights of the conservative movement in asserting that not every wish for harm to the president is necessarily a death threat.  Further, if you think back to four years ago, all manner of pretzels and Segways were wishing the then-president harm and so what's the big deal now?

In fact, I think that Americans agree that it's a good thing that the Secret Service is at least getting some good practice.

[Via Steve Benen.]

Posted by mrbrent at 10:11 AM

google wave

I decided that this time around I'd sit calmly and wait for the clear concise explanation of Google Wave to come to me instead of searching reviews and begging for an invite.  Something like this post from Daniel Tenner, a developer who would presumably know about these things:
I believe that people who don’t see what Google Wave is for are simply looking at it from the wrong angle. Wave is not a social tool.  It’s not Twitter, it’s not GTalk, it’s not Facebook.  It was never designed to appeal to the crowds of geeks who are currently trying it out.

According to Tenner, GW flattens out email trees and basically lubricates multiparty multiresponse electronic communications, and that sounds good enough to me.  Though implementing it in the workplace, where it sounds like it could effect some badass change, is a task that qualifies as "above my paygrade".

And maybe Mr Tenner is wrong and the geeks will squeeze some social function out of GW, or maybe even a military function — that'd be novel!  It's useful to me at least to have a place to start, and I can finally stop deliberately not wondering what the hell Google Wave would do besides increase shareholder value.

(Link falling into lap via Carr.)

Posted by mrbrent at 9:53 AM