Assorted Links

  1. Paul Ryan’s Influence on the G.O.P– A political feature about Paul Ryan, his upbringing, and his ability to bring about an ideological shift in the Republican party.
  2. German Mud Olympics Turns Attention from Lack of Real Medals– Apparently Germans are disappointed with their showing at the Olympics, but running at the same time are the Mud Olympics, a charity event held at the mouth of the Elbe River that includes Mud football, handball, and volleyball. Honestly, this looks like a ton of fun.
  3. German Media Slams Mitt Romney’s Tour Abroad-German media from across the political spectrum has been critical of Mitt Romney’s trip.
  4. Romney Comments at Fundraiser Outrage Palestinians-Sometimes I think news headlines deliberately try to obscure the meaning of the article, prompting people to read the article because they are confused rather than interested. In this case, though Romney spoke in Israel, claiming that the gap in per capita GDP between Israelis and Palestinians was (in part) because of “the hand of providence.” This is a standing theme for Romney, since he attributes the same cause to income gaps between The United States and Mexico, and Chile and Ecuador.
  5. Is Algebra Necessary?-An Op-ed by Andrew Hacker that is a pretty good case study of how not to write an essay. I was led to this article by a blog post by Timothy Burke that outlines the problems with Hacker’s argumentation. He does a really good job of outlining what this essay should look like and what it needs, and by pointing out the multiple ways that Hacker mostly just fumbles about without actually adding anything to the debate about Algebra in high schools. The comments also make pertinent additions about algebra and the piece.
  6. Israel Prepares Plans to Neutralize Syrian Chemical Weapons-A story in der Spiegel about Syrian chemical weapons, emphasizing that Israel is keeping a close watch on the developments, but also giving a rundown of the Syrian chemical weapons program and other preparations made by foreign countries (including the United States) to attempt to secure any such weapons.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. Tolkien and Technology-Commented on by Chad, this is an article in the Atlantic about one of Tolkien’s most enduring legacies to fantasy literature, namely the fear and disdain of technology.
  2. Remote-Scanning Techniques Revolutionize Archaeology-An article in der Spiegel about some of the new technology (like flying lasers) that are helping to uncover archeological sites in remote or otherwise veiled locations without needing to embark upon expensive digs.
  3. First Female, Saudi Arabian Olympians-Some photos on The Atlantic commemorating the first female Olympians in that country’s history.
  4. What do we mean by “evil”-some discussion of the Aurora shooting and how people have labelled James Holmes as “evil.” The author points out that evil is really the only word we have, but that it is a word that says “more about the helplessness of the accuser than it does the transgressor.”
  5. How the Gorgeous, Sometimes Fictional Sound of the Olympics Gets Made-Adding to the spectacle of the Olympics, there are the sounds. I suspect that this sort of manipulation of sounds is more common than we might think, but the huge array of different sounds that are traditionally associated with Olympic sports adds a bit more pomp to the coverage.
  6. Ivory Coast Leader Foresees Mali Intervention Soon-Not soon enough, in my opinion, and the intervention requires approval from the U.N. Security Council, but the ECOWAS has obtained Malian permission for the intervention. This is a response to the Islamic fundamentalists who have taken over most of the country and begun demolishing UNESCO sites (which I doubt is actually the immediate impetus). Hopefully it won’t devolve further.
  7. Mississippi Church Rejects Black Wedding-The church in question was founded in 1883 and has never married anyone who is black; despite the prior registration for the wedding, the congregation decided to upholding its grand tradition and prevent the marriage. The pastor agreed because he feared for his job if he proceeded with the wedding.
  8. Orangutan Sent to Island to Kick Smoking Habit-A zoo in Indonesia is sending their heavy smoking Orangutan to an island in a lake at the zoo along with another Orangutan who is known for stamping out butts rather than smoking them.
  9. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

The Olympics and Human Rights

The opening ceremony for the London Olympics was an impressive display last night, focused as it was on the development of Britain. It was not without questions (were there really super wealthy industrialists of African descent in the 1800s? Are we really glorifying those super wealthy industrialists anyway? Is there really going to be no acknowledgement of British imperialism?) and controversy (the ceremony featured the National Health Service in a way that a number of people have interpreted as a tribute to socialism.Then (as always) there was the parade of nations accompanied by some rather embarrassing and ill-informed commentary by the NBC broadcasters–frankly, a wasted opportunity. Then more music, some speeches, the torch, and fireworks. All in all, a wonderful spectacle.

One of the human interest stories that has come out of the Olympics this year is that for the first time ever, Saudi Arabia allowed female athletes to participate in the Olympics. A news story pointed out that Saudi Arabia is not the only country never to send female athletes (the others are Qatar and Brunei Darussalam), but had originally intended to send female athletes through a loophole in the rules so that, rather than competing as Saudi’s, they would compete as independent athletes, as several are this year, including Guor Marial, a runner from South Sudan (Unsurprisingly, South Sudan has had some more pressing issues to deal with than forming an Olympic committee). Eventually Saudi Arabia gave in and allowed the women to compete as Saudis.

I find the Olympics to be a bizarre event because of the nationalistic fervor it inspires, despite limiting the importance of men’s soccer. Moreover, the Olympics encourage people to drink, cheer, watch, and otherwise support “sports” like badminton, canoe, figure skating, and curling (all impressive athletic displays to watch, but I hesitate to call them sports). I enjoy the Olympics, but usually with a little bit of confused detachment. I also understand that the Olympics are political and more flash than substance, but I cannot help to read a number of social and economic disparities, particularly because the IOC actually has rules in place to enable Olympic bans for discrimination on grounds of race, religion, politics, or gender ( levied against Afghanistan in 200, and South Africa from 1964-1992). Additionally, there is a nod to gender equality in the Youth Olympics since every country to enter must have at least one female representative.1

The most obvious disparity is the total number of athletes competing for some teams, and the makeup of those teams in that some of the teams have just two or three athletes, while others have more than five hundred. This does have a lot to do with the total number of people in a country, but it often seems more directly related to the gross economic power of the nation (just my speculation). The more insidious disparity are the countries who send a massively disproportionate number of men to women–and that there are still several countries never to have sent a woman (Afghanistan has begun to allow women to participate since the fall of the Taliban), and the fact that countries with horrific human rights records and active civil wars are still allowed to participate. Syria has a delegation, Rwanda competed on both sides of the civil war during which there were acts of genocide,2 China is (still) occupying Tibet, Somalia has competed in every summer Olympics since 1996 despite the ongoing civil war (that prevented it from competing in 1992), Sri Lanka participates despite the twenty six year war with the Tamils (who were staging a rebellion or a war for their freedom, depending on your point of view), Zaire participated in the 1996 Olympics only months before Joseph Mobutu fled in the face of the militia formed by Laurent-Desire Kabila (formed after the Zaire army launched a campaign against them–the country continued to compete as the Democratic Republic of the Congo despite an extremely questionable human rights record afterward), North Korea competes despite forcing athletes to stay within their own compound,3 and some people believe that Israel’s actions toward Lebanon and the Palestinians warrant a ban. The list is incomplete, but you get the idea.

I suspect that the IOC realizes that it is basically impotent, which is why when there are civil wars, coup d’etats, or revolutions, the IOC is more likely to simply update the database and allow them to compete than actually take a stand. At the same time, it took a stand in the past over apartheid and about the way that the Taliban treated women, and has written rules about moral stands against discrimination. But these are the exceptions and, despite the opportunity to sometimes see the opportunity to watch an athlete from some third world country triumph over the giants industrialized world, the Olympics end up being dominated by the first- and industrializing world. To see this disparity and to be reminded of countries that are starving (at best, sometimes) or in active civil war only to have the IOC turn a blind eye, much as the rest of the world does, tarnishes some of the nationalistic spectacle that the Olympics endeavor to be.

One of the requirements in Classical Greece was that wars were put on hold for the duration of the Olympics. There was no ban for human rights violations or requirement that each state solved all its problems before competing, but there was an assumption that the problems of the world would be put on hold for the time. The idea was that the participants would be set aside their problems, not turn a blind eye. The modern development, though, strikes me in many ways a colossal waste when there is an active disinterest on the part of the world in any humanistic impulse.

1As an interesting aside, for the first time ever there are more female Olympians on the US team than men. It is hard to deny that Title IX has worked for women’s athletics.
2Not genocide, technically, since the western world would be treaty bound to intervene if it was genocide. Acts of genocide are different and do not obligate the treaty signatories to intervene. In a hopeful story this time around, though, the Rwandan flag-bearer is a survivor of the genocide.
3An article on Gawker brings up a good point about North Korea in that against all odds, the women’s contingent of that delegation is very strong.

Geeks: A few thoughts

Several days ago on CNN’s GeekOut blog, Joe Peacock wrote a post titled Booth babes need not apply. The gist of his argument is that the Geekdom has been infiltrated by attractive women who appear at various conventions scantily clad “just to satisfy their hollow egos.” He continues, saying that there are “true” female geeks, some of whom are even attractive (after all, “being beautiful is not a crime” and he does exhort you to “flaunt it if you got it”), and praising their effect on the Geekdom because, as a result, books, movies, and tv shows are smarter and of better quality. The women Peacock has a problem with are the “beauty-obsessed, frustrated wannabe models who can’t get work.” They are poachers, he says, who “seek the attention of guys she wouldn’t give the time of day on the street” and “have no interest or history in gaming.” As though he had not been blunt enough, he continues:

“They’re poachers. They’re a pox on our culture. As a guy, I find it repugnant that, due to my interests in comic books, sci-fi, fantasy and role playing games, video games and toys, I am supposed to feel honored that a pretty girl is in my presence. It’s insulting.”

He points to a problem that:

“There’s an entire contingent of guys in geekdom who absolutely love you, because inside, they’re 13 year old boys who like to objectify women and see them as nothing more than butts and a pair of boobs to be leered at,”

so “fake” women are able to make a living off the hard-earned dollar and immaturity of geeks, BUT:

“Those of us who actually like substance? We’ll be over here celebrating great comics, great games, great art, great movies and great television, because we’re actually attracted to a completely different body part: the brain.”

Those particular quotes jumped out at me, but enough on Peacock. There have been several quite cogent responses to what Peacock wrote, including from John Scalzi who declare in no uncertain terms that there is not a single spokesman for the Geekdom and anyone who who wants to be a geek is allowed to be a geek in whatever way he or she wants, Forbes, which argues that getting up in arms about fake geeks is just a stupid business plan (duh…the first rule of customer service–ahead of “the customer is always right” is that anyone who wants to spend money on your business should be allowed to), Liz Argall, who adds some notes about being a woman who is a geek, but does have some issues with the sleaziness of the Geekdom, and Genevieve Dempre.

My first reaction (as it often is to random extended rants online) is: who cares? My second is: CNN has a blog with the descriptor “It takes one to know one. When it comes to topics of interest to nerds, geeks, and superfans, we know how true that is. Geek Out! features stories from a nerd’s perspective that you can still share with your “normal” friends and family.”? Perhaps it is because I am a man, but more likely because I find it relatively easy to dismiss the rants of a single individual online, I am almost more offended by the blog description than by the post. I play board games, roleplaying games, video games, and follow sports closely. Most of my “normal” friends and family have done the same at some point or another and if they haven’t, they can be on the outside looking in for the moment without getting offended or weirded out; if they can’t, then I am fairly certain that I would not be friends with them. A blog like this reinforces the stereotype of “geeks, nerds, and superfans” as being a uniform other when the reality is that everyone has the things about which they are passionate and my geekness is different from other people’s geekness. At various points in my life I have been self-defined as and called a geek, a nerd, and a dork. Sometimes it is malicious, sometimes it is a compliment. Once upon a time the labels bothered me, but I moved on. I am who I am, I study what interests me, I read what I want, and just don’t have time to worry about the labels that come along with those actions. I would much rather be myself and let other people try to describe me through labels than choose labels and try to become what I have chosen. This is the long way of saying that labels are, by and large, a waste of time. The blog itself might contain many interesting stories, but that a major news outlet is carrying a blog so designed bothers me.

Though Peacock goes about it in a rather ham-handed manner, he does bring up some valid points about geeks and women in that the tendency to create social outcasts out of people who fail to conform or lack the social skills to make friends is a persistent issue, and certainly high school (the flawed model of social interaction that it is) does often result in a division between the popular kids and the geeks. But perhaps it is the Geekdom itself, what with generations of stereotypical social outcasts and misanthropes, combined with popular culture, that perpetuates the more insidious myth that because you are a geek you therefore lack social graces and of course the popular girl won’t ever talk to you. Because of this myth, the geek never develops social graces and, in turn, develops his own misanthropy, thereby perpetuating the cycle. The lack of social interaction, most likely, develops from a discomfort from both directions, but in order to change this one side or the other has to make a leap of faith that the other side is more than their stereotype. Sure, people can be mean and cruel, so it is possible that the cheerleader will turn up her nose at the geek, but it is also possible that the geek will make her undergo initiation to prove her intelligence/cred/whatever. Both sides of these imaginary communities need to be just a bit nicer to each other.

I should also point out that I generally feel honored when a pretty girl is in my presence, but I think that has more to do with the fact that I am a man. I don’t feel dishonored when another man or a woman I don’t find particularly attractive physically is in my presence and, in many instances, I am and/or would be more honored by a man in my presence than a woman. I may even gawk. I also can’t deny that there is a chance I would act differently in the presence of a pretty woman–there is a reason that coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and most sales jobs actively seek attractive women to work for them, though there always has to be a balance between competence and looks. Sex sells. This does not mean that you should treat the “ugly people” (barista, bartender, author) badly by any stretch of the imagination, but in a capitalist system, you do whatever you can to make sales.1 And for “booth babes”? Even if they are only there for the modeling gig, I would guess that it has more to do with the money than for the leering eyes. To think otherwise would be akin to thinking that the dancers at a strip club really get up on stage in front of strange men for the attention. Some women probably do enjoy taking their clothes off in front of men and performing, but in such a purely objectified way (as Peacock seems to argue) is improbable. More likely, most dancers do so because they have few other options and need to eat. Besides, even according to Peacock’s article, geeks aren’t exactly the prime demographic for such attention seeking, money-grubbing women (as they are described in the article) to seek.2

The rest of the misogyny I will leave for other people to address, as they have summed it up better than I can.

What I want to conclude with are some of Peacock’s assumptions about men. Women have done wonderful work for science fiction, fantasy, comic books, movies, etc, but I still think that the best authors in the field are men. This is not a sexist comment, but rather an observation (with Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear sitting on the table in front of me). I suppose that these male authors could be writing good books because there are more women than there used to be who will read them, but I can only think of the phrase post hoc ergo propter hoc here. I suspect that they write good books because they are good authors, not because of any particular demographic shift in their readership. It may actually be that the growing acceptability of being a geek (I suspect due to the internet and, perhaps ironically, due to a growing emphasis on entitlement and individuality that, I think, is having some particularly nasty side effects) has caused better writing and more women being involved the Geekdom. Peacock’s “boys will be boys, except for those of us who are just above the fray” argument bothers me because it assumes that most men are incapable of being polite, incapable of enjoying a good book, or a good movie. Men retard culture and women are required to improve it. Only, not all women, because some of theme are leeches.

Yes, there are serious social issues with misogyny, manners, and stereotypes, but going on a fundamentally flawed rant that actually buys into many of these stereotypes just perpetuates the problem. I nearly subtitled this post “Who cares?,” as was my initial reaction. There are real issues address when it comes to the Geekdom, so, perhaps most of all, the focus on how “real” of a geek someone is, or how real a hipster, or a feminist, or most anyone else is vis a vis their cultural tag is pointless. To quote Admiral Percy Fitzwallace from the West Wing, “I got some real honest-to-god battles to fight. I don’t have time for the cosmetic ones.”

1 When I managed a Quizno’s, my boss once saw a young woman come in for an interview and immediately told me to hire her. I did so, but only after going through the application and deciding she was qualified for the position and would be a good fit–not because she was attractive.
2 More than the posers, though, Peacock suggests that his real problem is with the corporations who have learned that geeks have money and are now exploiting their basest immature fantasies. While this is probably true, I still don’t understand how this is any different from any sort of advertising or business model…ever. A monied economy basically boils down to the idea that there is a set amount of money out there, so people go to work in order to gain some of this money, most directly my creating a business that will provide some good or service that the person or people with money need or want in order to persuade them to give that money to the business owner. The employees are willing to trade their time in order to share in that income, and then some other business finds a way to separate those people from their money. The fact that corporations or pretty women have found a way to seperate another group of people from their money shouldn’t be a shock to anyone.

Assorted Links

  1. Mitt Romney would restore “Angle-Saxon relations between Britain and America-Speaking about the relationship between Britain and the United states, an adviser of Mitt Romney said: “We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special…the White house didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have.” The immediate response is the charge of racism and, I can’t help but agree. But beyond that, I want to know who authorized this person to speak who uses the phrase “the special relationship is special”
  2. The Ruins of Empire: Asia’s Emergence from Western Imperialism– A story in the Guardian that traces some of the recent history of imperialism and the attempts to escape it. The author has a particular stance (that, ultimately, Western Imperialism impeded and destroyed cultures and societies by attempting to impose its own values) and is, for the most part, correct. He is not as directly critical as Said, but does call for a paradigm shift away from “narcissistic history,” that is history obsessed with western ideals, which causes a one-sided history that helps define the world as between “masters and slaves.” That said, the author does play down the impact of most Asian imperialism (yes for Japan, no for China), religious conflict, and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Rather than address these tricky issues, the author just wants to persuade you of the problems of viewing the world from a western perspective.
  3. Too much to bare– A reporter at the Guardian got permission to get a behind the scenes look at one of the older strip clubs in England. The story feels half-formed since she got expelled from the club for talking to the girls without first getting authorization. The club owner and the company line is that the work is well paying, respectful, and rather benign, while there were actually some darker sides. Besides the usual problems, the women actually need to pay for the permission to work–whether or not they actually get hired for the night. Unfortunately, the author makes a point of sticking to the quotes and to the narrative of what happened rather than providing analysis.
  4. But is it a Book?– A report in the Chronicle about one book historian who argues that an electronic “book” is not actually a book, which is the artifact of recorded text. The suggestion is that for all the benefits of the digital book, we are losing something by losing the artifact.
  5. James Bond with a Mask-An article that suggests that Batman on film is reduced to a supporting character in his own franchise, and basically begs Hollywood to keep rebooting the series until they actually capture the Batman of the comics–the qualification for “getting it right.” The author brings up some good points, but I am not sure it is possible. For one thing, comics and cartoons are not limited by the human body and technology for filming. For another, perhaps the larger concern, the author seems to be under a delusion about what the directors (some, at least) are trying to accomplish and why the studios continually reboot these franchises. I would expect that the rumored reboot of Batman (already) has little to do with Christopher Nolan’s infidelity toward the comic.
  6. Is Mythology Like Facebook-Well, no. But scientists are using statistical analysis of social networks to look into the whether or not, or at least plausibility that, myths reflect actual worlds or social networks.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Why skimp on the cheddar?

Warning, this post is entirely self-indulgent.

It is a heady feeling; one part pure desire, one part anticipation of a pleasure that is just beyond your reach. Not the ache of an unobtainable pleasure–that mixture of pure desire and the hollow pain that comes from the knowledge that the pleasure is entirely out of reach–but the rush that comes with knowing what you desire and knowing how (and how quickly) you can obtain it. The inexplicable craving that makes the entire world become sharpened to the point of fogginess. You notice every sight and every sound but are utterly incapable of concentrating on any one of them. Your heartbeat quickens while your mind and your body demand release. With luck, obtaining what you desire happens quickly and your senses return to normal, sated and weary. If not, your senses slowly return to normal, but the desire remains, muted. No longer the heady anticipation it is replaced by an ache. It is not a permanent ache that eats away at you from within–not yet, anyway–but a dull ache that will only go away when the pleasure is obtained.

Yes, it is a cliche to compare food to sex, but I did it anyway. So there. In some ways, this is a knee-jerk reaction to a great sandwich I had for lunch (great bread, tomatoes, avocado, chipotle mayonnaise). But for a white cheddar cheese sandwich, the cheese was decidedly lacking. There was plenty of it, but the cheddar on the sandwich was bland, hard, and a bit rubbery. This may pass for cheddar cheese in some places, but the sandwich disappointed me. Cheddar cheese should be on the verge of crumbling, moist, tart, and rich. It should be decadent. For a good, but not great cheddar I recommend Cabot’s Extra Sharp or Seriously Sharp cheddar. It is tart and it crumbles. But, if you want a great cheddar, I recommend Grafton’s Three Year Cheddar. Grafton’s cheese is tart and it crumbles, but it also melts in your mouth and is delicate. It was the disappointment of the sandwich, combined with the memory of Grafton’s cheddar that brought on the heady feeling, now slowly receding into an ache.

The world is more-or-less back to normal. I’m on my way back to reading for my comprehensive exams and I am sure that more sober topics will follow. Pardon the indulgence.

Assorted Links

  1. Greenland ice sheet melted at unprecedented rate during July – 97% (rather than the usual c.50%) of Greenland’s ice sheet melted this month. The title is somewhat misleading since one researcher said that this happens once a century or two, but they fear that since it happened by a heat dome crossing over the island, this melt could become a regular occurrence. Most of the melt took place over five days in July.
  2. Misery on the March – A note on the (new) humanitarian crises beginning in South Sudan from the Economist.
  3. One-Third of Colleges Are on Financially ‘Unsustainable’ Path – According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, there was a Bain and Company study that claimed a third of non-profit schools are financially unsustainable or will be–including some of the schools that are traditionally considered wealthy.
  4. NCAA Gets PSU Sanctions Right, But For Wrong Reasons – A note from a Michigan blog about the Penn State Sanctions that argues that the NCAA took appropriate or fair actions within the bounds of realistic options, but did so in a way that was hypocritical and weak, rather than following perfectly legitimate reasons and bounds that are within NCAA jurisdiction. These mirror my own thoughts fairly well.
  5. Are We Addicted to Gadgets or Indentured to Work? – An op-ed in the Atlantic suggesting that “addiction to devices” is really being ever more available for work because of the communication technology. I do not entirely agree given that, for many people (myself included), they are also addicted to Facebook, Twitter, and Texting.
  6. Inside the Minds of Mass Killers– an article Hana shared with me about the problems underlying mass killings that debunks the notion that the root cause is insanity.
  7. Promises About Another American Century Are Pretty Lies – A piece in the Atlantic that (while not really that novel) decries the current campaign promises of another American century as perhaps insidious lies.
  8. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. Marilyn Monroe: A proto-feminist– an extract from a Marilyn Monroe biography that suggests that she was a troubled person, but should not be dismissed (as she was by early feminists) as merely the willing toy of powerful men.
  2. What it Means to See the World With an Eye Toward a Facebook Update– An op-ed about the idea that our collective uncertainty about the place and position of Facebook is nothing new, but just the latest outgrowth of a consistent feature of the human experience. The author also concludes that Facebook is real life.
  3. Mitt Romney And Father Follow Bush Family Father-Son ReversalA story in the Huffington Post about how Mitt Romney is in many ways the opposite of his father in the same way that George W. Bush was the opposite of his father. It brings up some good points, but I think it is rather superficial punditry.
  4. No More Urban Officers?– An article in The Atlantic about the changing demographic of the military in general and the officer corps in particular. The main argument is that city schools are suffering a decline in ROTC programs, while the most successful programs are at large, relatively rural, state schools have more. It does not actually address the total numbers of people enrolled in the ROTC programs rather than total number of programs, though.
  5. Is Medical School A Worthwhile Investment for Women?-A report about a study that claims that, after taking into account time and costs, women would make more money as a physician’s assistant than they would as a primary care physician.
  6. Sadly, Nation Knows Exactly How Colorado Shooting’s Aftermath Will Play OutFrom time to time the Onion is accurate enough that its political satire transcends humor into the realm of the depressing. “Oh, and here’s another thing I hate I know,” Brennen continued, “In exactly two weeks this will all be over and it will be like it never happened.”
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Willard is a Funny Name

A while back I read something Anthony Bourdain wrote about his frustrations initially getting into the T.V. business because they explicitly told him to cut back the witty and insightful dialogue and exotic locations for his show and instead focus on grilled meat and anything debasing or demeaning. Or something like that, I am paraphrasing. He also gets fired up about much of what is on the food network, with rants about how Bobby Flay (who can really cook…and seeing him on the gimmicky, but ultimately impressive Iron Chef proves this) is repeatedly drawn in to go cook food that other people are good at in some sort of propped up competition or is limited to cooking on a grill, Emeril resorts to catch-phrases and silly noises, and Sandra Lee’s Semi-Home Made is an abomination to good food everywhere. Again, I paraphrase, not to mention am probably inserting some of my own ideas on his. Many of these people seem like they are perfectly nice individuals and they are in the world trying to make their way, but most of the time their shows make for awful television. Bourdain’s problem with the T.V. industry is that they base all of their decisions on ratings rather than either good food or good television. Why cheesy, gimmicky, and awkward shows continue to get good ratings is an enduring mystery. I much prefer any show that makes me think, and, as such, one of my favorite No Reservations episode is the one where he was in Beirut when the latest war between Israel and Lebanon broke out and Israel had to invade Lebanon. It was not a typical episode, but since they continued to film and then did retrospective about the conflict itself, it made for an excellent hour of television. I want my television to be smart, but, with certain, limited exceptions, I am apparently in the minority on this one.

I feel the same way about my political commentary and satire. One of my great frustrations with the recent political satire for the presidential election is that there seems to be one repeated joke: oh, boy! Willard Mitt Romney is a funny name! Failing that bit of uproarious humor, there is also the joke that he is so detached that he is actually an android or robot. Then, if nothing else is working, there is always his Mormonism, as Mormonism is an inherently funny religion, what with the taboo against drinking, their polygamy, and their magic underpants. The list of the “funny” things about Mormonism could go on, but really boils down to nothing more than pointing and laughing at a group of people who are different from the rest of us. I mean, the rest of us have as many differences amongst ourselves, too, but we’ve collectively decided that Mormons are weird. As far as I am concerned, Mormonism ranks above average on the cult-behavior scale, and is significantly more patriarchal, insular, authoritarian, and bigoted than I am comfortable with, but I’ve also outgrown my need to make light of any particular religion. Well, at least for superficial and petty reasons. I have my own concerns, but I have never been directly harmed by a Mormon, so I have more pressing concerns in the meantime.1 Most of all, those jokes are boring, but based on how often people makes those jokes, I can only assume that reminding people ad nauseam that Mitt’s real name is Willard, or that calling him “Mittens” results in a ratings bump and cheap laughs, else why do it?

So, yes, Mitt Romney has a funny name. What I don’t understand is how this is any different from someone calling Joel “Drool” in first grade (or, for that matter, Aaron Sorkin falling back on “Mohammed al Mohammed bin Bezeer” when in need of a recognizably Muslim name). Yes, people have names, names can be distorted, and some of the names are funny. That said, it is his name and I feel no more need to make fun of him for it any more than for his religion. The standards are different for public figures, but this is the same type of behavior that makes children in elementary schools cry, becomes outcasts, and, particularly if he ever asked people to stop, could constitute harassment in any other situation. I mean, yes, I laughed at a lot of the stuff that came out about George W. Bush during his presidency, but for most of those years I was a teenager. Looking back at all of it, I am rather embarrassed and, frankly, appalled at my taste. I’ve been there and I’ve moved on. Now, I am wondering what it says about our voting (or T.V. watching public) that much of the political satire has devolved to schoolyard taunts, (literal) name calling, and superficial observations. Mitt’s name is Willard. Get over it.

I am also willing to concede that there is a non-negligible chance that in some aspects of governance Mitt Romney would make an excellent president. I also believe that there is a significantly higher chance that Mitt Romney as president could make for a catastrophe nearing or reaching Bushian proportions. I think a lot of this would depend on who his advisers are and how much he bows to the his base. One of the repeated assertions about Romney is that he is smart and deliberate, so if someone is able to sit down and explain to him how his actions could destroy the country, I genuinely believe that he would listen. Moreover, I think that he would not be an unmitigated disaster in foreign policy, a realm in which even the foreign affairs Wunderkind Barack Obama (he did, after all, win the Nobel Peace Prize) has begun to regress. Despite these assertions, I also do not believe that Romney brings anything new to the table that Obama does not. Since President Obama is somewhat more liberal on social issues than Romney and has a slightly better track record on issues like taxes and debt than Romney, who, by all accounts, resorts more to tricky accounting than real solutions.

But I also don’t particularly care about Romney’s tax returns. I think he should release them for the sake of clarity, but given the few pieces of information we do have and the publicly acknowledged loopholes in the tax code that results in men and women with as much wealth as Romney has to pay significantly lower tax rates than the general public, the basic shape of the answer should be clear. At this point, the repeated demands are a form of rabble-rousing with a principled facade. Moreover, it is boring. I get it, Romney has a lot of money, but that this really constitutes news anymore. Some of the lurid details could be interesting to the general public inasmuch as we live in a voyeur society–which is how I attempt to explain reality t.v. shows and the celebrity of people who have no discernible accomplishments other than to be born rich. So, yes, the tax returns could be interesting for a variety of reasons, but when it comes to his qualifications to be president, I think that asking what he is hiding in his taxes is the wrong question. Closer, but still off the mark (at this point) are the questions about his record. I am sure that much of the Obama reelection campaign policy is to continually drive home to the voters that Romney has no principles and can be found on record professing adherence to both sides of pretty much every major issue, though The Onion maintains that Romney has a deeply principled side. Even closer is Romney’s record with Bain Capital and as Governor of Massachusetts. But these questions have all been asked and examined and so the answers have become increasingly stale and netting more and more marginal returns.2

There is one question in particular that I want someone to ask Romney: where does he stand on his father’s record and policy stances?

Now, I am by no means an expert on George Romney; in fact, I am only slightly knowledgeable above George Romney’s Wikipedia page. George Romney began his missionary work in a Glasgow slum and ended up as the president of the Scottish missionary district. Later he credited his missionary work as one of the major formative experiences for his career. Later, while chairman of the American Motor Company, Romney fought against both big labor and big business as impediments to a strong economy. He also had a good relationship with the United Auto Workers, and supported the implementation of the state Fair Employment Practices Act. As governor he supported the Civil Rights Movement, going so far as to walk with NAACP marches over housing discrimination, and designating the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Detroit March as Freedom March Day–sending a representative, but going to Church himself since it was Sunday. These actions were taken against the wishes of the Mormon Church. Perhaps even more telling, George Romney helped institute corporate and personal income taxes in Michigan and supported programs to help student afford college. He increased the size of government, but also left office with a surplus. He became the secretary of Housing and Urban development after losing the presidential election to Nixon in 1968 on account of his support for the war in Vietnam and various other gaffes (one insider said that Romney gave “the impression of an honest and decent man simply not cut out to be President of the United States.”)3, a role in which he actively campaigned for the desegregation of housing. This is an excerpted account of his life and career, mostly gleaned from Wikipedia, but he comes across as a highly capable individual who, other than the support of the Vietnam War) would make a fair president in my book.

So, I want someone to delve into his father’s legacy on taxes, on civil rights, on student loans, and many of the other issues I haven’t had time to research, and then, in some sort of insistent and comprehensive fashion, ask Romney what his stance on these issues is. For that matter, I wouldn’t mind someone asking the same questions to Barack Obama, though, clearly, he has less of an immediate connection to George Romney.

I should also note that George Romney has been covered somewhat during this particular campaign, including some discussion about how George Romney tried to stand up to the conservative wing of the Republican party and lost the election because of it. But though the point is probably a good one, it is more punditry. Nowhere in the (somewhat limited) searches I have done have I found anyone taking a hard look at George Romney’s stances on policy in both his corporate and political careers and asking Mitt Romney where he stands. The closest I have found is one piece of political punditry at the Huffington Post that examines the how Romney is running his campaign (thereby coming to conclusions rather than asking questions). But political punditry is practically useless, a small step up from athletic punditry.4

No more name calling. No more asking the same, boring questions again and again and again. I want real answers. If the next presidential debate solicits questions from the public, I encourage everyone to insist that they use some variant on this question because that might be the only opportunity to get an answer. It might get rejected. It may be that there is no useful answer to be had even if it gets asked. That should not stop us from calling for the question to be asked. If you feel the same way or feel that there is any sort of legitimation in this question, I encourage you to raise this issue with others.

1Even if I am related to this guy. Mormons are higher on my watch list than most religions, in part for the reasons listed above, and in part because of A Study in Scarlet, which led me to believe that they make marvelous villains. Let’s just say that I have my concerns about the extent to which the Mormon church exerts influence over its members, but that is no reason for me to mock them for being different from me.
2This phenomenon is not limited to politics. It seems that every media outlet picks its several top stories and every story has its own few facets. Derek Jeter, therefore, had an interesting comment on his reputation as a boring subject of an interview over All-Star Game Weekend, saying that he has this reputation because he keeps getting asked the same questions. If a reporter asked him anything new, then he would have new answers.
3It was the 1968 campaign where George Romney helped begin the trend of releasing tax information by releasing multiples years of tax returns for public scrutiny.
4I am endlessly frustrated at the number of words sports analysts use to “analyze” the Knicks’ decision not to sign Jeremy Lin, or the fact that Tiger Woods is doing his best washed up golfer impression going on four years now, or whatever the flavor of the week is.

A Day at the Zoo

Did any of the animals on Noah’s ark ever wonder “why me?” God chose Noah and gave him a command, but Noah chose the animals. Even supposing that (as Genesis 7 states) Noah chose seven pairs of the clean animals and one pair of unclean animals, there would have been significant culling of the herds. The Bible does not give any particular qualifications by which Noah made his selections and given that he had a week, the choice could reasonably have fallen to the animals most readily available. Moreover, animals can feel sadness, so did any of the animals look out upon the drowning world, perhaps at others of their species, and wonder?

I pose this rhetorical question because I had the same thought at the St Louis Zoo on Friday. I like animals and so I enjoyed the zoo in as much as I got to see more animals, but I have mixed feelings about zoos in general (in much the same way that I have qualms with museums).

First, the good. The people who work for the zoo legitimately care about the animals and the environment, and zoos do an excellent job of protecting endangered species, of attempting to rehabilitate animals into the wild, and of attempting to promote wildlife education. I do not necessarily agree with everything that they do, but I will never question the dedication and intent of upstanding and well-run zoos. If a zoo is poorly run and not up to safety codes, then that is a different matter entirely. Though I did not like many of the habitats in the St Louis Zoo, finding out about their attempts to keep the animals active an engaged through multi-species habitats and aromatic herbs was fascinating and hopeful.1

I am also generally in favor of making animals available for people to see who do not generally get into the wild. I would rather people experienced nature that is not kept behind a fence or in a cage, but I understand the problems. That many people in the natural habitats could destroy those habitats, and, more fundamentally, people are living increasingly urban lives and not escaping. I have been very fortunate in my travels and whether by fortune or design many of the people at the zoo are unlikely to ever get to those exotic locales from whence the animals hail. This thought also depresses me, but the causes and solutions have little to do with the zoo, so I will not linger.

Second, the bad. For all of the efforts made at preservation at the zoo, I do not like seeing animals in cages. I am particularly sensitive to large predators, such as tigers, and animals that are noted for their ability to hide in their natural habitats, also such as tigers, put in cages and on display. The sign for one such animal stated, almost as a point of pride, that the animal was unknown to people (well, European people, anyway) until well into the 20th Century because of its ability to hide in the trees. Naturally, the pen had but one tree.

The animals are explicitly put on display and so people come in and gawk. What is more, the zoo has to employ gimmicks to get people to see them, including giving every primate a name and role (e.g. The Professor) and then hanging banners with this information around their cages. Whether or not people actually read these is another matter entirely, as were the number of people (of multiple ages) making gorilla sounds at the gorillas, trying to wake one gorilla up, and the one young woman who informed her mother that “gorillas aren’t cool.” People were complaining that the lions were sleeping, the tiger just lay there, and the grizzly bear mostly just paced back and forth. The only really impressive display I witnessed was a remarkable feat of climbing and swinging by an Orangutang, but I was hardly surprised. The Sea-lion show aside, the animals are put on display but are not explicitly there to entertain us, a fact that many people seemed to miss.

Then there was the concrete. Some of the pens were plastic, but most did a serviceable job of providing an actual environment, having tress, etc. Visitors, on the other hand, walked through gardens, but always on concrete walkways, which left me ill at ease. Perhaps it was my recent hikes or my upbringing, but concrete growing in (city) parks2 is indicative of a world that has only minimal interest in living with nature, so the only possible solution–and it may well be–is to cordon off nature lest it be utterly done away with.

The St Louis Zoo got its start at the Louisian Purchase Exposition World’s Fair in 1904, and it was proud enough of that origin to repeatedly point it out. The zoo should be proud, and I am glad that it is there, but looking at the tiger and the lions and the bears, I could not help but be reminded that at that same World’s Fair there were people considered “primitive,” including Native Americans, who were put on display. This is not to say that the 1904 World’s Fair was innovative or remarkable for this display, which was really a continuation of a practice in the 19th century that declined shortly thereafter, but has not entirely disappeared. The animals are not people, but many did not look any less broken for the display.

In sum, I fully support any and all preservation efforts by zoos. I just don’t like cages and fear that the day is approaching when these small, artificial oases of wildlife are all that we have left.

1That said, some of the habitats were downright depressing, and I’m not sure how I feel about multi-species habitats with species that would never come into contact in the wild.
2To quote “My Next Thirty Years,” by Tim McGraw.