Saturday, June 30, 2007

Profound Stupidity

If this report from is true, I think it's safe to say that the Mitt Romney campaign for president is essentially over:
Romney placed his family dog, an Irish setter named Seamus, into a kennel lashed to the top of his station wagon for a 12-hour family trip from Boston to Ontario in 1983. Despite being shielded by a wind screen the former Massachusetts governor erected, Seamus expressed his discomfort with a diarrhea attack.

Now the story, recounted this week in a Boston Globe profile of Romney, has touched off howls of outrage from bloggers and animal rights activists even though it was presented in the story as an example of Romney's coolness under trying circumstances.

When Romney's eldest son, Tagg, and his four brothers complained about the brown runoff down the back windshield, their father quietly pulled the car over, borrowed a gas station hose and sprayed down both the dog and the kennel before returning to the road.
On the bright side, this incident at least demonstrates that Mitt Romney would make an ideal GOP moderate senator. Mitt Romney's philosophy of pet care is exactly the same as Senator John McCain's approach to legislation: if the public outcry becomes to great, then quietly pull your bill aside, wash the crap off with a garden hose, and then put the bill back on the road to passage.

Monday, June 25, 2007

From Thomas Jefferson to Star Trek

Conservatives stereotypically make a great deal of noise about the flaws and failures of contemporary liberalism. One point that tends to be overlooked is that there are certain trends of thought that have defined liberalism from the first days of an independent United States to the present. One of these trends is the idea that absolutely everyone would be much better off if we all just ditched high technology altogether and went back to an agricultural, non-industrialized way of life.

Thomas Jefferson was notorious for this belief, although it was certainly more plausible in his day than ours. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote in "The Age of Jackson" (p.8) that:
The America of Jefferson had begun to disappear before Jefferson himself had retired from the presidential chair. That paradise of small farms, each man secure on his own freehold, resting under his own vine and fig-trees, was already darkened by the shadow of impending change. For Jefferson, Utopia had cast itself in the form of a nation of husbandmen. "Those who labor in the earth," he had said, "are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people"; and the American dream required that the land be kept free from the corruptions of industrialism.
The Jeffersonian ideal certainly didn't survive long for the United States as industrialization and monopolization slowly accelerated during the 19th century. The Jeffersonian dream didn't exactly go away either. For example, during World War II the United States and the United Kingdom briefly considered an exclusively agrarian future for Germany in the form of the Morgenthau Plan:
In 1944, Morgenthau proposed the Morgenthau Plan for postwar Germany, calling for Germany to be dismembered, partitioned into separate independent states, stripped of all heavy industry and forced to return to an agrarian economy.
Nowadays, the environmental movement has caused a dramatic revival of the Jeffersonian dream. Its single most popular modern-day proponent is Al Gore; according to, Al Gore wrote in "Earth in the Balance" (p. 366) that:
This crisis will be resolved only if individuals take some responsibility for it. By [sic]education ourselves and others, by doing our part to minimize our use and waste of resources, by becoming more active politically and demanding change. each one of us can make a difference. Perhaps more important, we each need to assess our own relationship to the natural world and renew. a connection to it.
Then there is the Star Trek franchise which seemingly has every other episode devoted to virtuous pre-industrial societies getting bullied by their stronger, more aggressive neighbors. The common assumption of all Star Trek writers seems to be that a sizeable fraction of civilizations in the galaxy will just give up on technology altogether -- assuming that they were evil or stupid enough to acquire it in the first place -- even if it means getting pushed around by Klingons armed with knives and sharp sticks.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Did John Edwards sleepwalk through the 20th century?

The reason I ask my title question is because John Edwards apparently knows squat about basic economics:
Edwards' [health care] plan would remove long-term patents for companies that develop breakthrough drugs and then reap large profits because of the monopolies those patents provide, according to a statement by Edwards obtained Wednesday evening.

Edwards said offering cash incentives instead would allow multiple companies to produce those drugs and drive down prices.
Government subsidies are a more efficient way of producing new drugs than the profit motive. What kind of idiot believes that?

Suppose Edwards is correct in assuming the big government payments are an efficient way of developing new drugs compared to big corporate profits. That should mean that countries with a heavily socialist form of goverment should be leading the world in new drug development compared to their competitors. Obviously the reality is entirely the opposite. The capitalist United States rolls out so many new drugs per year that we Americans basically view every medical or even social problem as a golden opportunity for developing a new drug to treat it. On the other hand, Russia (which as the successor state to the communist Soviet Union should be the gold standard of world drug development according to John Edwards) is watching the Russian male slowly become an endangered species as a result of (among other things) epidemics of TB and HIV.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The strange deaths of Phil, Nikki and Paulo

Having been a "LOST" blogger for some time, it seems like my mind has been programmed to look for "LOST" analogies in other television shows. One of these analogies occured to me today as I was contemplating the recent series finale of "The Sopranos". First consider the somewhat bizarre death of fictional New York mobster and Tony Soprano enemy Phil Leotardo:
Shortly thereafter, Leotardo is shown talking to his wife through a car window at a Raceway gas station when he is suddenly shot in the head by Walden Belfiore, a soldier in the Gervasi crew of the DiMeo crime family. Leotardo's wife gets out of the car screaming his name, and the car is shown rolling over Leotardo's head with his grandchildren inside, leading some witnesses to vomit.
Compare this to the equally bizarre fate of "Lost" season three castaways Nikki and Paulo:
In "Exposé", Nikki discovers that Paulo has the bag of diamonds when he drops his nicotine gum. After failing to retrieve a gun from Sawyer, Nikki lures Paulo into the jungle and uses one of Arzt's collected Medusa Spiders to paralyze Paulo. As the paralysis is taking effect, Nikki takes the diamonds from him and he tells her that he kept them from her because he was afraid she wouldn't need him any more once she had them. The island "Monster" is heard and more spiders arrive, biting Nikki in the process. Panicking, Nikki runs to the beach, burying the diamonds along the way, and collapses nearby Hurley and Sawyer. When asked by Hurley "what happened", she says "paralyzed" but Sawyer and Hurley are unable to make it out. Everyone presumes her dead, along with Paulo, and begin to investigate. By the end of the day, the camp decide to give the two a funeral. Sawyer throws the stolen diamonds into the grave before they bury them. Nikki opens her eyes just as the other survivors start to fill the grave, but no one notices, and both Nikki and Paulo are accidentally buried alive.
Notice the parallels here. In the case of "The Sopranos" finale, we have a series finale that was rather deliberately underwritten -- with the unprecendented fury of "The Sopranos" audience in response -- with a gruesome and heavily ironic death thrown in to appease those fans. In "Lost", we have two new characters entering the show in a way that was critically deplored by the fan base, and again public opinion is expected to be appeased by giving these characters gruesome and heavily ironic deaths.

In a certain sense, this is reminiscent of the early Roman Imperial approach to entertainment. A patrician elite of professional critics has developed a willingness to endure the plebian-pleasing, gruesome games of the Colosseum in the hopes of later enjoying the high art of their day in peace.

From another point of view, it appears that at least these television producers are much more responsive to the "Left-wing" forms of protest from their audience. For example, the audience displeasure with the introduction of Nikki and Paulo could have been interpreted by the producer in two ways: 1. the "Right-wing" interpretation that this negative reaction indicates a failure of believability in the show that could be corrected by better writing in the future or 2. the "Left-wing" interpretation that Nikki and Paulo are obviously bad characters who deserve terrifying death. Given a choice between a relatively "silent" call for better writing in the show or the vocal death chant issuing from their fan base, the producers caved and picked option 2.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"The Sopranos" series finale explained

Based on the news coverage, it seems that the very last episode of the HBO drama "The Sopranos" has part of its viewership totally infuriated, part convinced that the starring character Tony Soprano gets "whacked" off-screen, and a very very tiny part elated at their luck at having watched the most brilliant ending of a serial drama ever filmed.

Obviously it's time for a dose of sanity here. As usual, this post will require a spoiler alert to be mentioned before you read further.

Jim Emerson's scanners::blog has a good description of the final sequence. In short, Tony visits a busy diner and waits for his wife Carmella, son A.J. and daughter Meadow to arrive to dine with him. The 80's song "Don't Stop Believin'" is playing in the diner. The controversy centers on the manner in which this final sequence ends (author's strikethrough text):
Shot: Sound of an oncoming car, which passes behind Meadow. She approaches the camera and moves past it on the left.

Shot: Three-shot of the table. Carm's munching on rings. AJ's still looking at the menu. Tony's flipping through the tableside jukebox selections. Cling!

Shot: Tony looks up. Journey sings: "Don't stop--"

Your TV sound and picture go dead. Black. Silence. Adrenaline surge. Maybe it's your cable. Maybe it's your VCR. Hold for five 11 seconds. Credits roll. No music.
First of all, let me just state that anyone who thinks this was some kind of brilliant, heart-stopping, gesamtkunstwerk of a conclusion to the series is totally wrong. In reality, the meaning of this ending is simple and straightforward. The ending is a sudden abrupt termination of the story that cannot be predicted by following the storyline and rationally extrapolating ahead to a predicted ending. The immediate effect is to dispel the illusion of reality by emphasizing the artificiality of the visual medium; the director knew what you would be anticipating and did something totally different in a way to obvious to ignore. That this occurs as the final visual "statement" of the series really only implies that the show is over, it was fun while it lasted, and please stop worrying about it.

Or, to put it another way, think of this ending as a sort of visual apology to all of the non-obsessive fans of "The Sopranos". If you enjoyed the show, didn't care that all of the details matched up in every particular, and are willing to "walk away" now that the series is concluded, this was the ending for you. Is it therefore a brilliant ending? Not quite, but it was respectable.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A few easy pieces

  • Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards really held President Bush's feet to the fire with some tough talk today:
    "Today, as a result of what George Bush has done, we have more terrorists and fewer allies," Edwards said at a news conference. "There was no group called al-Qaida in Iraq before this president's war in Iraq."
    Whether or not there are more terrorists in the world is debatable, but the United States has definately gained allies during President Bush's time in office. These allies are Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- all inducted into NATO in 2004.

    For the sake of argument, conceed there was no such group called "al-Qaida in Iraq" in Iraq before 2003. There was a vastly more powerful, aggressive, and downright psychotic terrorist group operating out of Iraq before 2003, generally refered to as the "Saddham Hussein Dictatorship of Iraq" or just "Iraq". Now instead of all of Iraq hating the United States (although mostly at gunpoint), only part of Iraq hates the United States. Isn't that progress?

  • The Paris Hilton coverage has gotten so ridiculous that even Al Sharpton is elbowing his way into the story:
    The Rev. Al Sharpton denounced Paris Hilton's release from jail on Thursday, saying it had "all of the appearances of economic and racial favoritism."

    "I think that it's both another glaring display of how race and money seem to get different treatments. There seems to be a different criminal justice system for some than others," Sharpton said.
    I feel your pain Rev. Sharpton. We live in a country where, as long as you're rich, powerful, glamorous and white, you can get away with anything. I guess that means you won't be endorsing Senator Hillary Clinton for President then?