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February 10, 2013 - February 3, 2013

Friday, February 08, 2013

Open Weekend Thread:

Reframing the Question

A quaint old Jagger (not Stones) song. But what's old
can be new again. Including vinyl records. Even 78s.

ANOTHER VOICE FROM THE PAST Isn't this exchange ridiculous?

And isn't this more or less silly?

The right-hand side of the political spectrum is conjuring a circular firing squad designed to divide and polarize people who should be allies. The so-called smart people think the conservative problem is about adjusting the message and branding, unless they think it's about being right instead, whatever it costs. I think they're all full of crap.

I think it's time to take a deep breath and step back. Look at the the real challenge we face. And think brand new thoughts about how to proceed.

I have some of those. But I want you to have your chance at the challenge first. I'll give you the weekend to respond to my teaser, which is this...

Apparently, the only thing that gets people fired up is paranoia about "the kids." Hence the hysterical stampede to new gun control legislation. It's not really about gun control, though. It's about a defensibly secular postulate of morality even the most amoral (or professedly anti-religious) voting bloc can't bring itself to eschew. We HAVE to protect our kids.

Fine. Ditch all the arguments about ideology and religion. Let's start over. If we were "The Party of the Kids," what would we believe in and advocate? Start there. THINK.

First and most brutally simple, we need more kids. Lots more kids. Birth rates are declining, and for a generation to come, too few kids will have to shoulder the costs of a ballooning population of old people, old Baby Boomers. They need reinforcements if they are going to arrive in their forties with a chance at a better second than first half of life. Strength in numbers, don't you know. How do we get more kids? You figure it out. No need for the scarlet letter "A" when you approach it from that direction, eh?

Oh. One more thing. Then I'll leave it to you all to extrapolate. How long have we been a culture of instant gratification, which is a polysyllabic way of talking about living exclusively in the present. But we're in the Obama era now. There will be no return to our former prosperity for a long long time. The real shift we're looking at is a return to delayed gratification, meaning working hard now so the future will be better. We're no longer in the business of heading off damaging trends before they do damage. The damage has been done. What's left is fixing what's not working so the future can be better.

Can we consider abandoning blame, the obsession with being in the right, the need to convince people who don't care that our ideas were always better? Let it go.

Time to launch the age of post-Obama punks. Skinny ties, suits with narrow lapels, Sinatra hats, white shirts, and women who at least WANT to look like ladies. And, oh yes, an emphasis on real-life conversation as opposed to texted/sexted spazzing. You know. Being proud of actually knowing something, having read something, and having the wherewithal to make teachers look like fools not for how they dress, but for how they think.

Reconsider all the great moral, economic, ethnic, sexual, racial, immigration, foreign policy, and traditionally ideological disputes. Rethink them in terms of what you'd be for if you wanted to fix problems without getting the credit for it. Keep thinking "the Kids" and preparing them for a life of rewarding delayed gratification, a.k.a. The Future. I think you'll be surprised how right the old arguments might have been and how unnecessary the customary verbiage is. Forget what you're against. Remember what you're for. For example: in this context, can you imagine living with the last half of the Ten Commandments in the schools rather than shrilling about all ten?

Don't let me limit you. Talk about whatever you want, say whatever you want. Throw spitballs at the wall. Just...

Have a nice weekend.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

No 2012 Apocalypse? Dread
the Year of the Water Snake.

Oops. My birthday's also in that '53-'54 window.
Guess you'd better listen to what I have to say.

NEVER CLAIMED I WASN'T. Well. Astrology Day. Who knew? My western zodiacal sign is Cancer (sun, moon, AND rising), which is a water sign. Apparently, this year's Chinese sign is also associated with water, the first time since 1953-54, when the U.S. unveiled the hydrogen bomb and Stalin died.  But that doesn't mean the news is going to be good. Here's what the soothsayers are saying forsooth:

Asian astrologers warn of stormy Year of Snake

AFP - A stock market slide, escalated conflict between Japan and China and more Gangnam-styled success for South Korean singer Psy will shape the incoming Year of the Snake, say Asian soothsayers.

Those who make predictions according to the study of feng shui -- or literally "wind-water" -- are influential in many parts of Asia, where people adjust their lives or renovate houses and offices based on the advice.

As they bid farewell to the Year of the Dragon, the fortune tellers warn that the "black water snake" that emerges to replace it on February 10 -- the first day of the Lunar New Year -- could be a venomous one that brings disaster.

Previous Snake years have been marked by the September 11, 2001 terror strikes that killed nearly 3,000 people, the crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The 1929 stock market plunge that heralded the Great Depression also occurred in a snake year.

Hong Kong's celebrity feng shui master Mak Ling-ling predicts the stock markets will enjoy a smooth first-half before becoming turbulent in the second half of the year, which she links to the characteristics of the reptile.

"It's just like the movement of snakes -- fast, aggressive and sharp, but cunning and tricky at the same time," she tells AFP.

That's not terribly soothing, is it? As someone who's had a more than ordinary interest in snakes over the years (not with especial affection), I'm in a position to share some of the applicable metaphors with you.

There are really three kinds of water snakes. The constrictors who squeeze you to death -- think anacondas -- the aggressively venomous ones like water moccasins, and the highly venomous but passive, small-fanged ones called sea snakes. To my mind, 2013 will feature all three.

Domestic U.S. policy will be the anaconda, a tightening of the massive coils of the federal government for the purpose of suffocating rodent commoners. That process will probably keep us from paying much attention to the other two. The water moccasins will have their day in the Middle East and Far East, as the perennially venomous aggressors rear to strike mortal enemies from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf to the Bay of Bengal to the Straits of Japan and Taiwan.

Meanwhile, the terrifyingly venomous but mild-mannered kraits of the U.S. military will swim serenely past all these cannabilistic snake pits and if they are interrupted in their global migrations, they will be rendered as impotent as a sea serpent stranded on land. Nobody cares. The United States of Anaconda has turned its back on everyone and everything. The only prey that matters to the Snake on Plane One is the local easy pickings in the shallows of flyover country.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013


Fascinating: The Nested
Dolls of American Justice

For those who don't know about nesting dolls, it was the Chinese who started it.

. If you haven't seen it, find some way to view Sundance Channel's The Staircase. It's a documentary about the trial of Michael Peterson for his wife's sudden death in 2001.

A huge part of the nesting metaphor is the documentary itself, begun shortly after novelist Peterson was charged with murder upon reporting to 9-1-1 the discovery of his wife at the bottom of the stairs in their opulent Raleigh-Durham home.

What's the outer doll and what's the inmost doll? I don't know. Maybe you will. All I can do is delineate separate layers. Consider the following a temporary ordering, intended only to start you thinking.

1. The Precipitating Event. Michael Peterson was a famous, affluent novelist married to a Nortel executive. After a quiet night at home with his wife, he returned from the pool area to find her dead or dying at the bottom of a narrow set of curving stairs. The police arrived and were shocked to discover that she had actually bled to death after the supposed fall. However it happened, she had not died immediately. The police soon arrested Michael, subsequently discovered that he had led a double life with gay lovers, and that some years previous he had been on the scene when a close family friend had also fallen down the stairs and died.

2. The Local Context. Peterson was a political activist in Raleigh-Durham. He had been a columnist for the city's major newspaper and had frequently ridiculed the city administration and the police force for low close rates on serious crime and high visibility crackdowns on trivial offenses like illegal bingo. He ran for mayor but was defeated. No doubt that he had enemies.

3. The Documentary. Almost as soon as he was charged, Peterson agreed to an unprecedented film project in which his private interactions with his defense team would be exhaustively recorded throughout the process of preparation and the trial itself. The producers were French and their evident bias against the United States, the South, and the American judicial system pervade their finished segments.

4. Plumbing. Riveting and absolutely unprecedented. We get to see the defense attorneys and their investigators at work behind closed doors. Meetings with flip chart presentations itemizing the pros and cons of the case against their client. Jury consultants and their surveys, including responses to the practice testimony of hired experts like Henry Lee ("like a hired gun"). Witness coaching, particularly with respect to how Peterson should respond to questions about his homosexuality. Nuts and bolts. Likewise, we have frequent on-camera contributions by the prosecution. In trial, the defense attorneys' reaction to national media coverage by Nancy Grace.

5. The Facts of the Case. Not that strong. The defense team is determined and canny. The attempt to drag in the prior falling death is exposed as compromised, prejudicial, and possibly tainted. The prosecution insistence that the amount of blood lost had to be due to bludgeoning is countered by research showing that 20 years of deaths by bludgeoning in North Carolina ALWAYS involved a skull fracture. In this case, none. The defendant's family are unanimous in saying they observed no violence or animosity between Peterson and his wife. And the family was an extended family, including children of the first dead woman on the stairs, adopted and raised to adulthood by Michael Peterson and his late wife. Moreover, the prosecution's blood evidence is shown at trial to be inconsistent and suspect: photographs of the crime scene vary between dates and some introduced into evidence have no dates at all.

6. The Outcome(s). At trial in 2003, Peterson was found guilty. Subsequently, the conviction was overturned and a new trial granted based on the discovery that the prosecution's chief blood witness was corrupt. He was found guilty of falsifying blood evidence in multiple previous trials. A new trial date is still to be named.

7. The Defendant. Aaaaaah. One can understand eventual acquittal based on the above. But we also have this documentary. I've watched five episodes thus far. I begin to understand how much store supposedly unsophisticated jurors set by observing the accused on the stand or in the courtroom. None of what follows is evidence. But it's the basis of my belief about the defendant's innocence or guilt.

1. The Precipitating Event. The man is a Vietnam veteran, author of multiple novels about that conflict. He has seen sudden, violent death. And yet he makes two calls to 9-1-1 on the night of his wife's death that are described by the operator as "hysterical," and he was the one who terminated both the calls, even though he insisted his wife was still breathing. Yet the first responders said on the stand that the blood on the victim's head was dry when they arrived. Under cross-examination they couldn't prove it. uh, who could?

2. The Local Context. One episode featured Peterson's personal quest to improve racial and judicial conditions in Raleigh-Durham. He showed off the columns in which he'd ridiculed the city authorities, noting that "no one likes to be made fun of." We watched him drive past some intersection and proclaim that nobody black lived beyond this street. Later, he pointed out that only a white man of means could afford the kind of defense he was getting. Later still, we see him contemplating the cost-effectiveness of a $30k focus group designed to unearth counterintuitive reactions to his homosexuality. Apparently, the plight of the poor is only a footnote if not a mere soundbite. You know. Sad. But utterly immaterial.

3. The Documentary. Most of the participants seem to forget that the camera is there. My sense is that Michael Peterson never forgets. From first to last, he seems so much to be overacting his role that the viewer loses track of events wondering why the defense team doesn't appear to notice. Perhaps these things are only evident on film, and perhaps they're not visible to a French director. Perhaps the defense team is even more cynical than one expects: Of course he's guilty; we're earning a paycheck here. Here and there, though, are revealing moments. As when the defense investigator alerts Peterson to the fact that an affidavit has been sworn that he had gay sex with a man who fully identified himself. Peterson's blustering incredulity is of a piece with his other on-camera performances. Head shaking, superior dismissal, WTF are they up to now. Only to admit it a day later.

4. Plumbing. Down to basic transactions. The series isn't quite over yet, so this will be the last numbered entry for now. After five hours of this excavation, I can say that Michael Peterson is, well, a writer plying his craft. His outbursts and conversational overtures all seem to be written in advance, rehearsed in his head like second rate play dialogue and then performed for the camera. Everything about him is pretentious, phony, and contrived for effect. He can't make eye contact with people or the camera. When he reacts to bad or embarrassing news, he's always getting something out of the refrigerator or ostentatiously caring for his dogs. In court, he's the only spouse killer I've seen who can produce real tears at will. He's so emotional he flees meetings in which pictures of his dead wife's injuries are being passed around. But he's quick to condemn prosecutorial misconduct when the hired guns challenge their forensics. He can be witty and even acid at that."The truth is completely lost in this process," he says at one point.

I've reached the point where I have to avert my eyes when he is on screen. I don't feel at all that way about his lead attorney, whom I dislike but reluctantly admire for being such a pit bull.

Final point. Michael Peterson smokes a pipe. I know the psychology of this vice is debatable if not controversial, but in personal experience (I'm more than old enough), pipe smokers are not weepy, hysterical, or impulsive. Peterson affects the clenched teeth approach of Douglas MacArthur, as if the pipe were some affirmation of authority, but that's a function of Narcissism without being proof of actual authority. For the most part, and I'm sure the off-camera MacArthur was the same, pipe smokers use their pipes to buy time to think. They are deliberative men. They are patient and calculating, if not finally cold.. They have to be. Pipes come with so much overhead. Tobacco cans, pipe cleaners, tampers, tiny knives to scoop out residue, plus all the separate acts of lighting, puffing, emptying, dismantling, cleaning, reassembling, filling, relighting, banging on the ashtray, etc, wearisome just to contemplate. They think before they decide. And the pipe is always at least partly a distancing act.

When you couple all this with a man who can't look you in the eye, what do you have?

Up to you.

Watch The Staircase. Tell me how you nest the dolls of justice.

For my part, I'm thinking that the way of actual justice doesn't lie with Dream Teams. It has to do with straightforward, and yes competent and fair, dealings with the facts, and then a jury that applies common sense to the evidence. It's possible to pursue any set of facts into utter meaninglessness with enough rhetoric. Maybe celebrity justice isn't what the rest of us should aspire to. Maybe justice is.

What do you think?

Monday, February 04, 2013

Super Bowl Notes

Geez. Did the refs engineer this spectacular turn of fortune? Poor poor Niners.

FULL DISCLOSURE. In no particular order:

Seven reasons the Forty-Niners should quit grousing about having the game stolen from them because of two non-calls by the refs in the closing seconds:

1. The Ravens played the whole game with an enormous disadvantage -- no middle linebacker on defense. Ray Lewis's performance was about as miserable as it gets. If you can't score more than six points in 30 minutes playing 11 against 10 when you supposedly have the best offense in the NFL, you have only yourselves to blame. And given the game "narrative" established by the sports press, John Harbaugh had no choice but to play Lewis. He contrived to win anyway. Amazing.

2. The second Niners field goal at the end of the first half was the direct result of a bad call on "running into the kicker." Akers missed the field goal then got an undeserved second chance. If you don't acknowledge the bad calls in your favor, don't bitch about the noncalls that go against you. That three points mattered a lot at the end.

3. Given the brownout, the subsequent Niners comeback if successful would always have borne an asterisk -- the only Super Bowl decided by an external event. There's no way around the fact that the Niners were getting their asses thoroughly kicked until the lights went out. A Niners win would ALWAYS have been referenced with a great big "BUT" attached to it. Tainted.

4. The so-called pass interference that wasn't called on the Niners fourth down goal to go play. Bogus on several counts. In the first place, the Niners got into the Super Bowl via a similar non-call in Atlanta's failed comeback against them in the closing seconds. (Live by the non-call, die by the non-call.) Why? Refs don't want to be THE deciding factor in the biggest games. Let the players play. As NFL Network's Eric Davis, who calls Niners games on the radio in San Fran put it when asked this morning, no ref was going to throw a penalty flag on that play. "it was a great decision by a young cornerback," Davis said. "You can't let that fade route succeed, no matter what." Or, as NFLN's Steve Mariucci said, there's lots of hand fighting going on around five yards from the line of scrimmage. "Crabtree also pushed off against the DB's helmet. A close call that's probably a good non-call." His panel colleague Kurt Warner, a QB, added that the defender pulled his hands away when the ball was in the air, which probably saved him. Ike Reese, a former Eagle and now sportscaster, said "Possibly uncatchable anyway. It wasn't a good throw. It was landing a yard in the white. It would have taken a circus catch to score." Finally, my own observation: You've had three previous goal to go downs. You didn't score. On your last chance you have to throw to a covered receiver. Why does that mean you should have won the game? And more: a minute left on the clock for Flacco to general a winning field goal even if Niners had scored.... Phooey on San Fran delusions.

5. The non-call of holding on the Ravens during the penultimate play that resulted in a safety. The only mystery here is why anybody cares. The result of the non-call was a safety. The result of a penalty would have been a safety. No time would have been put back on the clock. Utterly irrelevant.

6. The Niners NEVER led. Hard to claim you deserved to win if you trailed from wire to wire. They had their chances to take the lead. FAIL.

7. The final score. Two teams play in the same stadium, on the same turf, with the same random factors, and the same refs. The final score is, uh, final.

So much for the game. Now onto the important stuff.

The brownout. I loved the conspiracy theory advanced by a caller at Philly's WIP SportsTalk this morning that the Saints finally exacted their revenge against Steve Goodell and the NFL. What better way to embarrass them than by shutting them down in their ultimate egoistic moment? Works for me.

The commercials. Mostly, they sucked. My wife and I loved the Budweiser Clydesdale entry for the year. We chuckled at the Dorito's goats, but honestly there were no highlights. Nothing creative or especially memorable except for the ones that were the most awful and repellent. My own nominees:

1. The GoDaddy model-geek kiss. I wouldn't want to see that close a close up of two ATTRACTIVE people kissing. It's more obscene than porn. Kissing is truly intimate, more so than the objectified act of sex. Even Hollywood knows that people can't stomach more than a medium shot of a passionate kiss. I was repelled all the way to my bones. I understand it was successful in terms of website hits. I don't care.

2. The Oprah Winfrey/Jeep ad. Everybody seems afraid to comment on this one. Since when is Oprah the voice of military families and their sacrifices? Not to me. And since when is it acceptable to imitate the tone and imagery of a charitable appeal in order to peddle a product line, in this case Jeeps, but who cares what product line? Why do I think of pimping and prostitution and nothing else in retrospect?

3. The Kia "Don't Fight the Tech" spots. Just plain creepy. I am not, and never will be, looking for a car that thinks it knows more than me.

4. The Amy Poehler Best Buy(?) ad. At this point who needs to be reminded that crazy, obnoxious women are crazy and obnoxious? No one. It's also not funny.

Lots of other dumb, dismal failures, just not as memorable, offensive, or head scratching. The worst of all reviews -- dull, dim-witted, and, uh, dorky.

Speaking of dull. The halftime show. Yes, Beyonce is a great piece of ass. Which is her whole stage persona. Don't you want what's inside this outrageous costume, all you schlubs? Uh, no. The music is wallpaper, every song the same as every other, featureless and pointless. After that performance I don't care whether she lip-synched the national anthem at the Inaugural or not. It just wouldn't matter, any more than the supposed backup band of female musicians in her Super Bowl show who were pretending to play the sax and whatever instruments they were posing with. I didn't find the show or Beyonce offensive. I just didn't have any feelings at all. Except possibly for all the aging men I've heard praising the show since. And that feeling is embarrassment. For them and for the fact that their simpering might be applied categorically to me. (Drudge's latest bulletin implies Beyonce may have been responsible for the power outage... Figures.)

Did I say the word embarrassment? I did. Now I'll say the name Alicia Keyes. I read before the game that one of the Las Vegas betting lines had to do with whether Alicia Keyes would go under or over 2 min 25 seconds in her performance of the national anthem. I told my wife it was the one bet I'd be willing to make: OVER. I should have placed the bet. Her performance was ludicrous.

I'm also probably the only person in the country who objected to the performance of "America the Beautiful" by the Sandy Hook children. Of course, they're sweet and everyone relishes the opportunity to shed a righteous tear. But it rubbed me the wrong way, beautiful singing by Jennifer Hudson and the kids or not. Two reasons. First, I'm uncomfortable when I imagine myself in the position of parent to one of these children. What do I want at this point? I want my son or daughter to return as quickly as possible to everyday life, not ducking the fact of loss but realizing that life goes on and disaster doesn't have to steer you into even deeper waters. But what does THIS stunt accomplish. My friends die, but then I become a celebrity whose life is defined by my proximity to an event I will from now on associate with both horror and exponentially multiplied attention. Victimhood becomes a path to limelight and success? Pain and pleasure become inextricably linked before I am fully conscious? Really?

Second and lesser, to be sure, I heard a sports radio host who professes not to be vulnerable to sentimental manipulation declare that he found the Sandy Hook choir to be a "perfect frame for things like the gun control debate." He was unmoved by the Clydesdale commercial but politically suckered by little girls and boys conscripted into an artificial tableau of perseverant innocence. These are dangerous waters.

All right. Enough. I had at least two more topics I wanted to cover, but this is already too long. (For example, I have unfinished business with a Salon columnist named Andrew O'Hehir.) I'll stop for now.

Truthfully, the Super Bowl is no longer just a sporting event. It is always its own perfect storm of cultural touchstones. I may revisit it. The NFL has long ceased to exist on the periphery of the national consciousness. In many odd ways, it has wormed its way to the center.

Talk to you later.

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