Wednesday, April 30, 2008


vital equipment
Cracked Magazine has a daily feature online where they do lists. Lists are always popular, people love them and some day I'll puzzle out exactly why. This particular one is 7 Commandments All Video Games Should Obey. The list starts out great, with the primary one: make games that you can play with other people in the room. The Nintendo Wii was underpowered compared to the other platforms that came out at the time, yet it is vastly more popular - in no small part because you not only get games that are fun to play but the best of them (like Guitar Hero) are with people you physically interact with. Apparently the hand held controllers are a lot of fun as well, but there is something to be said for playing games with actual physical beings rather than a disembodied voice abusing you over headphones.

Yet it was law number 4 that was most compelling to me: Thou Shalt Make Killing Fun. This isn't about sadistic joy in mangling people, rather it is about game play and entertainment value, even when it comes to fighting. In particular, there is one aspect they mention that is my number one all-time most frustrating complaint about video games.

In the original Legend of Zelda, you start out with your little squat blocky Link and are told that the evil monsters have stolen the princess and are taking over the kingdom. Everyone is in peril! You alone are the entire world's last hope, you, Link must save the princess and destroy the monsters. The entire kingdom is behind you, we will equip you to defeat the evil. Your mighty weapon?

A wooden sword.

Not a bokken, not a magical branch of Yggdrasil imbued with terrifying druid powers, not some special enchanted wood. No, a child's imitation sword, like you would play pirates with in 1950. I could only come up with three reasons why the king hands you a toy to save the world with.
  1. The kingdom is incredibly poor and this is their idea of a mighty weapon (which is how the princess got kidnapped to begin with)
  2. The king is not particularly fond of the princess but has to make a public gesture
  3. The king is sadistic and finds sending heroes to a horrible death with inadequate weapons hilarious, even stimulating
The Legend of Zelda wasn't the only place this was used in. Oh my no, almost every game uses this stunt. You start with a pistol in Doom to face the hordes of hell, and run out of ammo for that, ending up punching guys until you can get a box of ammunition. It's cheap way of increasing difficulty, in fact, the higher difficulty levels include reduced ammunition and the creatures take more shots to kill. Finish the game with that, sucker! Some games give you weapons you find in your garage like a wrench or a crowbar, how heroic.

This is a cheap way of making the higher end weapons seem more exciting, but it also cheapens the experience. Frankly, most of the time it is simply absurd, you don't send the world's last hope into battle with crap unless somehow the situation absolutely forces them to it.

Another 'feature' that needs to die a horrible, screaming death in video games is the Mario Brothers leaping obstacle course. If the game is all about jumping from one impossible position to another, that's one thing: I can avoid it like a radioactive flaming porcupine. If the game is another sort of thing entirely, then we've got a problem. Take Halo, where the entire game is about riding around, shooting bad guys, ducking behind cover, and so on at your own pace as you move around solving a puzzle and trying to survive. Then, for no conceivable reason, the final 2 minutes of the game are you driving around obstacles in a car, leaping over vast chasms with a time limit that requires you to perfectly memorize the exact path and tricks to follow like Dragon's Lair. Left, right, left, left, accelerate, jump, left... arrg I DIED AGAIN AND HAVE TO START OVER.

Too many games slip this kind of thing into the content without warning, jarringly different from the rest. This game is about infiltration and using your special force powers... except this part where you have to jump from one tiny column to another as they shrink into the lava and bolts of lightning fire at you. Out of nowhere the game has gone from strategy and tactics to precise controller use. It doesn't matter how capable your character is, it doesn't matter what awesome powers he has, if you can't hit those buttons in the right order and speed, you die. Suddenly the game has shifted from playing a role to pushing buttons like a chimpanzee looking for a treat.

And the worst part? You have no hands. If you don't land, on your roller skate-clad feet that slide forward after landing, exactly on the proper spot, you fall off. You can't catch the edge and pull yourself up, you can't land and fall over, sliding along the surface. You land on your feet like an Olympic gymnast or it's all over. You are a machine with a gun sticking out of your chest and rollers on your feet. The few exceptions to this include Prince of Persia, which was it's primary selling point in the ancient side scrolling original version of the game, and the Thief series which is incredibly great in every way.

This isn't one of Cracked's commandments, but it should have been. Related to the above effect is the in-game riddle or puzzle. Now, I understand some people love this stuff, and more power to them. However, in a role playing game, the game is about what my character can do not about how well I solve puzzles. Don't throw a logic puzzle or a riddle at me unless my character somehow has the ability to solve it or at the very least help out significantly. I don't want to have to rely on my personal ability to save the virtual game world when I'm playing some uber powerful guy on the screen. If I can leap over a tall building with a single bound, then that's how I want to save the world, not working out a math problem with the game on pause or looking up the solution online.

The Knights of the Old Republic games, for all their great game play and story, were horrible this way. You build your powers, you interact with your NPCs, you see new areas and solve quests, then there's a puzzle that you personally, not your character, are meant to solve.

If I'm playing Puzzlequest or Solve Riddles with Schmoopy, I expect this. If I'm playing a role playing game, I don't want to see this ever again. I hate riddles, I know Tolkien put them in the Hobbit, but that was because the title character Bilbo liked them and was particularly skilled in riddles. It also was a literary theme that Tolkien was trying to work into his English mythology project. This does not belong in role playing. EVER.

The final commandment they offer is appropriate and very correct: have a great ending. If you play 50 hours on a game and finally get to the end, make the ending worth waiting for. Some games are great at this (although KOTR basically made the bad guys the better choice: if you chose the light path, you got the girl. If you chose the dark path, you got the girl... and ruled the galaxy). Some are not. The second Knights of the Old Republic seemed like 80% of a game, then some crap slapped together that made little sense just to get it out to market. We've got a deadline boys, I don't care how good it is!

Games that just end with credits are terrible, nobody cares who designed the game or did the voices, and even if we did, they're in the game documentation and online. We want something given to us: great job, here's a huge cutscene with epic music! At least give your players something to look forward to. Theif: Deadly Shadows is a great example of how to do it right, make it interesting, give us something to enjoy.

Video Games have come a long way, but the industry is not learning from its mistakes very well and is making the same ones over and over. Let's hope they listen to their players.
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Just a quick addendum to the previous article on college education, I offer this from Dartmouth University, courtesy Roger's Rules:
Dear former class members of Science, Technology and Society: I tried to send an email through my server but got undelivered messages. I regret to inform you that I am pursuing a lawsuit in which I am accusing some of you (whom shall go unmentioned in this email) of violating Title VII of anti-federal [SIC] discrimination laws. The feeling that I am getting from the outside world is that Dartmouth is considered a bigoted place, so this may not be news and I may be successful in this lawsuit. I am also writing a book detailing my experiences as your instructor, which will “name names” so to speak. I have all of your evaluations and these will be reproduced in the book.
These students criticized professor Priya Venkatesan and she didn't care for it. Unable to actually attack them under slander laws (the truth is an absolute defense in Slander), she's just suing them for violating her civil rights by disagreeing with her and criticizing her. Here's the kind of criticism she faced, in one student's required feedback:
Aside from the fact that I learnt nothing of value in this class besides the repeated use of the word “postmodernism” in all contexts (whether appropriate or not) and the fact that Professor Venkatesan is the most confusing/nonsensical lecturer ever, the main problem with this class is the personal attacks launched in class. Almost every member of the class was personally attacked in some form in the class by either intimidation or ignoring your questions/comments/concerns. If you decide to take this class, prepare to NOT be allowed to express your own opinions in class because you have “yet to obtain your Ph.D/masters/bachelors degree”. We were forced to write an in-class essay on “respect” (and how we lacked it) because we expressed our views on controversial topics and some did not agree with the views of “established scholars” who have their degrees.
The face of modern education: she will not be Ward Churchill'd!


"I wasn't a good student in high school, but I wanted to prove that I can get a college diploma. I'd be the first one in my family to do it. But it's been five years and $80,000, and I still have 45 credits to go."

One of the sadly true facts of life is that college graduates usually end up in low end jobs, at least to begin with. You can graduate with a great degree from a prestigious institution and end up flipping burgers while you look for better work - and this is not exactly rare. What's worse, you have a gigantic debt burden on your shoulders that can take decades to pay off at the very start of your adult life, when you're most likely to marry and have kids. That's a pretty sizable handicap.

Yet most companies hiring require you to have a degree before they'll even consider you for the job. It doesn't even matter what the job is, no degree and they'll almost certainly ignore your application and resume. To be sure, they'll often say "or x years of work" yet of two otherwise equally qualified applicants, the guy with the degree gets the edge and usually the nod. That scrap of paper means a lot to employers.

Yet how much does it really mean for the student? I remember well in high school the impression that I had of how things were meant to be. You graduated high school with misleadingly-named college prep courses then went to college. In your senior year, you spent time looking over different colleges, considering what degree you were going for. It was the obvious - even necessary - next step, almost as if it was state mandated like the previous three stages of education. I didn't even consider not going.

The problem is, college training isn't really even needed for most jobs. I can be a perfectly fine airplane mechanic or construction worker or welder or taxi driver or fisherman or a million other jobs without even a high school education. For some reason, these kind of jobs are looked down upon with an old world elitist attitude: "you dig ditches? How quaint." I prefer Mike Rowe's approach on the television show Dirty Jobs: these are jobs that need doing for you to enjoy your elite lifestyle and they're at least as dignified and significant as being an accountant or stock broker.

OVER-RATED (clap clap clap-clap-clap)
Which brings me to an article that President Friedman sent me this morning. I bookmarked it yesterday but didn't have time to get to it, and had enough content up already. It was going to go where the Obama/Sister Souljah post went, but that had to go up fast to be topical and I had a dim hope that maybe someone might pick that up and link it somewhere. I'm lousy at self promotion.

The story is at The Chronicle of Higher Education, by Marty Nemko, and it is entitled America's Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor's Degree. This article is the source of my tagline quote at the top. He starts out with a depressing statistic:
Among high-school students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their classes, and whose first institutions were four-year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later.
Mr Nemko points out that dropping out because you couldn't afford it, couldn't hack the long study time, or didn't have the educational chops to make it through college is a grind on your soul. I can attest personally that being booted from college destroys your self-esteem, and while that's greatly over emphasized in modern culture, it isn't exactly meaningless. I had the smarts to handle college, I could have done it monetarily due to generous grants and loans, but I wasn't ready for college. I had burnt out on schoolwork and study by about halfway through my Senior year and by the time graduation happened I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

Further, when I got to college, it was the first time I'd been away from home, was from a poor family, and was two thousand miles from home. Isolated and a year younger than everyone else there, I felt astoundingly alone. To make matters worse, the "college prep" courses, the top-end toughest classes available in my high school were like kindergarten compared to Calvin College's entry-level courses. Granted, Calvin is a fairly prestigious institution, but those courses were completely inadequate for what I faced. I learned a lot, but I was unready, and I suspect that did not help.

Again, Marty Nemko suggests this is not exactly unique:
Today, amazingly, a majority of the students whom colleges admit are grossly underprepared. Only 23 percent of the 1.3 million high-school graduates of 2007 who took the ACT examination were ready for college-level work in the core subjects of English, math, reading, and science.
However, I'm sure they feel really good about themselves and have plenty of knowledge about what words and phrases not to say and how much we're destroying the world. Even when people make it through college, they don't end up doing particularly well:
Perhaps more surprising, even those high-school students who are fully qualified to attend college are increasingly unlikely to derive enough benefit to justify the often six-figure cost and four to six years (or more) it takes to graduate. Research suggests that more than 40 percent of freshmen at four-year institutions do not graduate in six years. Colleges trumpet the statistic that, over their lifetimes, college graduates earn more than nongraduates, but that's terribly misleading. You could lock the collegebound in a closet for four years, and they'd still go on to earn more than the pool of non-collegebound — they're brighter, more motivated, and have better family connections.
This is a problem that modern business realities have made worse. As more and more people go to college, the edge of a single college graduate is dulled: it was one thing to be a graduate in a society where you were the minority, that made you stand out. Its another thing entirely to be one of a host of similarly educated people. Further, as businesses turn more toward part-time hiring and send jobs that they can overseas, the graduate's talents and learning becomes less important and valuable to a business.

As Mr Nemko says, you end up driving a truck or tending bar with your Bachelors of Business Management.

Colleges and Universities are not helping this trend, either. They are trying to get more and more students into the institutions, arguing for greater assistance to students, lowering standards (particularly for what they consider underrepresented identity groups), and as a result the number of college students who are unready or unqualified for that level of education is growing.

Womyn's StudiesAdd to that the ridiculous, activist trash and nonsense that colleges pay to support and offer in classes and study areas, and you've got a lot of wasted money. Political correctness and the latest left leaning political theory are more determinative than quality education and truth in too many of these institutions. Colleges tend to have a lot of waste and spend a tremendous amount of money on looking really nice; I don't have a particular problem with that, but there comes a point at which you've spent more than you probably needed to. And some of the spending is just trash, as I pointed out in an earlier article on colleges and expenses:
And the last category are the superfluous expenses. This is the area where colleges can cut spending and not suffer at all. The extra money spent for a specially designed mascot, the black student union, the department of Bush Impeachment Studies, the special program to turn in people who offend you. These are areas the college or university spends money on that do not directly address academic achievement or create a proper educational environment, but are instead special interest or activist areas. These are the areas any college not only can but ought to cut, because they are using money up to no beneficial end, and likely are causing problems on campus instead.
As Mr Nemko points out, another problem is that research makes a college money while students represent a loss. Students are expensive to maintain and teach, so if you can find ways to make money rather than focus on education, that's where you lean. The football team gets a new stadium, the music department is shoved off into a closet. Professors are sometimes there primarily for their research and at best secondarily for their students, which makes the learning experience less than wholesome.

As a result, the education quality has gotten worse at universities and colleges over the years, according to several studies:
A 2006 study supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 50 percent of college seniors scored below "proficient" levels on a test that required them to do such basic tasks as understand the arguments of newspaper editorials or compare credit-card offers. Almost 20 percent of seniors had only basic quantitative skills. The students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station. Unbelievably, according to the Spellings Report, which was released in 2006 by a federal commission that examined the future of American higher education, things are getting even worse: "Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined."
Mr Nemko has some suggestions about how to repair colleges and universities, and most of them seem fine. The problem is primarily at the heart of these institutions, however, and will not be changed until that core can be cleaned out. The leftist radicals of the 60s and 70s who chained themselves to the Dean's desk are the Deans now, and they've in no way moderated their viewpoints. Conservatism and anything but the most left-leaning ideals are often banned and barred from the campus, and the result is that the leadership surrounds its self with like-minded professors and department leaders, encourages students into a united viewpoint politically and philosophically, and this whole process is fed by academic journals, meetings and the cloistered community of universities.

This won't change without some serious outside influence, without economic pressure and changes at the top. Alumni have got to stop assisting their alma mater without questioning what that learned institution is up to.

The thing is, I'm not so sure it really matters for most people how good colleges are. As I noted above, most people don't need a college education. Most people would find it a tremendous waste of money. I agree completely that a liberal arts education (as in the arts and sciences that support and feed liberty), but I also know from personal experience that you do not need a college to get such an education. In fact, given the state of many colleges and universities, I suspect that just such an experience may impede or reverse a liberal arts education.

So the argument I'm trying to make here is not that those dumb lug nut turners and ditch diggers are better off ignorant. We all should have a rich and full education, no matter what our job is, this is unrelated to our employment and simply part of being a human being. It is food for our soul and brings richness and importance to every aspect of life.

As I stated in my essays on education, every child should get a quality foundational education regardless of their inclinations, interests, and future career. Every child should, to the best of their ability, be taught to reason, understand, educate himself, and restate what he's learned as well as what he discovered himself. This is not part of your career, it is part of being a human being rather than a brute or a machine. You need to know and understand things about not only the world around you but yourself to really be an adult and a part of society. You are irresponsible to the social contract and your fellow members of the community if you fail to do so.

That said, again I have to state that not everyone needs a college education. If you are a very skilled auto mechanic, love your work, and do it well, you don't need a 4-8 year degree and a hundred thousand dollar debt. In fact, you're better off without such a waste of your time and talents. You have a responsibility to learn what you can and exercise your brain while you live in this career, but college is not the only place to do so.

This push for more people to get college educations comes from three areas, I believe. The first is a mistaken elitism that thinks that it is demeaning to be a construction worker or a farmer. You're doing labor dear, this is the 21st century. Let the Mexican workers do that.

The second is from a mistaken idea that education solves everything and brings people out of poverty. There are very poor, very well educated and intelligent people out there. There are colossally stupid, ill-educated incredibly wealthy people. A study was done in the late 90s by a Canadian group; they asked poorer and wealthier people various questions, trying to find out what they thought the secret to success was. The poorer people by a large majority said the key was education: get an education and you get money. The richer people said, by a large margin, that it was hard work.

Now, I'll hardly say that either one is the exclusive cause of financial success, but of the two, hard work is certainly the greater influence. Being smart and sitting around makes you poor. Being dumb and working hard will likely bring you greater wealth. Education isn't about money or a career, it is an end unto its self. It can assist you in your job and your financial well-being, but it is something that is good without needing a practical goal. Yet it is this this attitude that "education makes you richer" that drives most of the collegefare programs. Poor folks would do better if only they, too, could be driven insurmountably into debt by college costs.

The third driving force behind attempts to get everyone into college is a bit less benevolent, I fear. Some, at least, know that colleges and universities are often indoctrination factories churning out a monolithic worldview and would like to see more people put through this system. It takes years for college students to shake the nonsense off that they got poured into their heads by professors and activists. Ward Churchill is not, I'm sorry to say, the exception in colleges. He just got recorded and word got out. More people in college means more people at that formative time in your maturity and intellectual advancement for the left to grab hold and keep you longer. It's also an end run around home schooling: OK you got the kid for a while while they are young and avoided the PC system but we can get you into college and do it there.

Overall colleges and universities are damaged and flawed from the top down. They are in deep need of renovation and the entire system should be, I believe, reexamined for the quality and efficiency of education offered. At the same time, for most people this drive to get them in college is really extraneous. You don't need that experience, and it can even be damaging. So yeah, I agree with the basic premise of Mr Nemko's essay. The Bachelor's degree is America's most overrated product.
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"Congress: Bingo with billions"
-Red Skelton

Let Them Eat Ethanol
I get emails from the GOP even though I'm not a member of the party. I think it is because I I've written the chairman a few times in the past and they figure I belong to the Republican Party. The Democratic Party has not responded in this manner, so far (although my congressional representatives from both parties send me their spam emails). One of these GOP emails today was about the economy, pointing out how high the price of fuel is and how it happened since the Democrats took over congress in 2006.

At Town Hall, Bert Prelutsky also pointed out economic shifts since November 2006, possibly due to a similar email:
Well, recently, a friend of mine reminded me that just prior to the 2006 election, consumer confidence was unbelievably high; regular gasoline sold for about $2.25-a-gallon; and the unemployment rate was 4.5%.

Since then, consumer confidence has plummeted; gas now costs about a dollar-and-a-half-a-gallon more; unemployment stands at 5%; American homeowners have seen their home equity drop by over a trillion dollars, with one percent of our homes in foreclosure; and, for good measure, the liberals refuse to eliminate earmarks.
Which is all technically true, but it is a bit disingenuous to blame the Democrats in congress for it. The economy was starting to falter in late 2006 because the housing market was finally showing the results of giving federally mandated loans to people who could not afford them. That was the result of congresses under President Clinton who wanted to help out the poor by putting them into crushing, insurmountable debt. Can't afford a house? No problem, here's one anyway, if you don't pay, we'll just call for congress to bail you out.

Economies take time to cycle, at least a few years, if not five or more, to have full effect. Congress hasn't had time to do significant damage to the economy yet, and the leadership (particularly Senator Reid) is so hapless and weak that they haven't gotten much done at all except an endless series of fruitless and wasteful hearings and over fifty attempts to pull out of Iraq, a policy that recently was abandoned because things are doing so well even the legacy media cannot ignore it any longer.

Yet there is some damage that congress has done economically.

Gas prices have gone up, and there are a few things that the Democrat-controlled congress could have done that they did not. They could have authorized more drilling for oil. They could have opened up ANWR to drilling for example. Congress could have lowered gas prices and eased requirements on fuel blends so that the refineries would not need to change processes so often.

And they could have avoided outlawing cheap Canadian fuel. Arab News has the details, from writer Syed Rashid Husain:
In an interesting tussle, a virtually unnoticed clause was added almost at the least moment to a US energy bill that bars the government, in particular the Department of Defense, from using Alberta crude because it is deemed unconventional and too dirty.

A provision in the US Carbon Neutral Government Act incorporated into the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 act effectively bars the US government from buying fuels that have greater life-cycle emissions than fuels produced from conventional petroleum sources.

The United States has defined Alberta oilsands as unconventional because the bitumen mined from the ground requires upgrading and refining as opposed to the traditional crude pumped from oil wells.

California Democrat Representative Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and Republican Tom Davis added the clause.
Tom Waxman (D-CA) is the guy responsible for most of the fruitless and wasteful hearings that have bogged congress down for almost two years. Tom Davis (R-VA) is one of the few Republicans who voted against the Bush tax cuts and is a member of the Republican Main Street Partnership, which is a big supporter of Senator McCain.

A result of this change in law is that cheaper gas from Canada, a country competing with Saudi Arabia for the US oil market, is not available to the US gas companies. Why? because it is not green enough, because it is said to have worse emissions. By 2012 some are predicting gas prices as high as seven dollars a gallon, yet this congress is doing everything it can to keep those prices high. They distract from this by loudly complaining about windfall profits and price gouging in oil companies, yet anyone who criticizes a company for making a 9% profit margin is either not clear on business realities or is being deliberately deceptive.

Some claim Ethanol will be the savior of the US, turning grain into fuel, but there's a few problems with that theory. First, the amount of grain it takes to fill a single SUV tank with fuel would feed a family for a year according to the World Bank.

Second, the numbers don't add up. Here's an analysis from Chaos Manor, although the commenter was trying to argue that the United States could be energy independent through ethanol:
U.S. Motor Gasoline Consumption in 2006 was 389 million gallons per day.

According to the National Corn Growers Association, an acre of corn yields 100 bushels.

According to, One bushel of corn yields about 2.8 gallons of ethanol.

So, 1 acre of corn can generate 280 gallons of ethanol.

We need 330.31 million gallons of ethanol a day to make enough E85 to fuel the US fleet. (85% of 389 million gallons of gas).

So, 120,563,000,000 gallons of ethanol is required on an annual basis. Assuming 1 crop per year, 430,582,143 acres are required to grow the corn.

There are 640 acres to the square mile.

So, 672,785 square miles are required to grow the corn.

Area of the US = 3,537,441 square miles.

So, assuming that no improvements in ethanol production efficiency are realized and that only one crop per year is produced, roughly 19% of the land mass of the United States would be required to grow enough corn to make enough E85 to replace all the gasoline consumed in 2006.

That's a lot of land. How does that compare to the land mass currently being used for crop production?

According to the USDA, in 2002 about 531,250 square miles of that area was currently being used to grow food. That's about 15% of the total land mass.
In other words: if we use more farmland than at present, exclusively for producing fuel, we could equal the fuel demands of the US... two years ago. To be fair, the commenter then claims various theories about how to cut this down to only a third of the present farming land in the entire United States.

We could import Ethanol (from Brazil, primarily, where they make it from sugar), but there is a 54% federal tariff on the fuel to make sure the subsidies that are poured into farmers stay there. At present, Ethanol is a debacle, it is not ready for prime time, yet that does not prevent congress from dumping $7 billion of subsidies a year into it to get farmers to produce the stuff. Even Time Magazine has realized the debacle that Ethanol subsidies are at this point.

So, while we cannot blame congress for the housing problems and weak dollar, we can blame it for the increase in fuel and food costs, which has a fundamental effect on the overall economy. If it costs more to ship products and costs more to stay alive, this makes everything cost more. Congress has not done what it could and should to reduce energy prices, yet it has taken steps to ensure both fuel and food prices have gone up.

The previous congress, for all of its stupidity and waste actually did do some things to reduce the energy costs in the US, by easing the restrictions on building new oil refineries, assisting the construction of new nuclear power facilities, and they actually did try to get more drilling done, which sadly was blocked by Democrats and a few Republicans. Say what you will about the Republican congress: they were not as bad as this batch. Democrats are spending even more, want to raise taxes, are pushing fuel prices up, and waste billions on hearings about baseball and empty accusations against the Bush administration.

Basically, the American people got a raw deal when they traded parties in charge of congress. Something to remember this November. The Republican congress sucked, the Democratic congress sucks even more.

*UPDATE: Robert Samuelson at the Washington Times points out that the US is the third largest producer of oil in the world, and that there is as much as 30 billion barrels of oil available to us that over the years have been ruled off limits by congress. This congress can put the money where their mouth is when they talk about getting away from dependence on foreign oil and lowering gas prices by merely opening up these areas for drilling. Montana recently found what looks to be a very large reserve of oil as well.

Yet when you look at the contrast between the rhetoric and the actions of this congress, a pattern emerges: they act like they want oil to be cheaper but take actions to increase cost. Does this mean that they are simply saying what they know people want to hear, but are deep down happy with the high gas prices? Keep in mind, nobody who is in congress is middle class or poor. You don't leave congress poor, you leave congress a millionaire. They aren't affected by gas price fluctuations the way you or I are. For them, high gas prices might simply mean "you drive your filthy polluting car less, world-raper."
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Quote of the Day

"Please, never, ever, ever agree with each other. Never stop arguing, never stop fighting. You cranky, magnificent bastards."
-Craig Ferguson on Americans
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Tuesday, April 29, 2008


"And then I've got to give a special shout out to my Pastor. The guy who puts up with me, counsels me, listens to my wife complain about me. He's a friend and a great leader not just in Chicago but all across the country, so please everybody give an extraordinary welcome to my pastor Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., Trinity United Church of Christ."
-Senator Obama June 5th, 2007

Sister Souljah
OK Reverend Wright's pronouncements on the US, white people, and general goofy conspiracy theories have gotten so damaging to Senator Obama's campaign that he has issued a statement utterly rejecting them and claiming “The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago.”

Will it work? I suspect the legacy media will drop the whole thing now, that's good enough for them to not mention reverend Wright, or Bill Ayers, or the communist webmaster of Senator Obama's official blog, for that matter. And likely the next radical to show up coincidentally in Obama's past totally unrelated to what he believes in or stands for. I'm willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, but you know after the fifth or sixth white supremacist that shows up in someone's past as an associate or "close personal friend" you have to wonder... maybe this guy is telling us something with the people he continually surrounds himself by.

In any case, people are already comparing this speech to President Clinton's Sister Souljah denouncement. For those who don't know about this or remember it, Sister Souljah was a female rapper in the early 1990s who said in an interview "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" in defense of the LA riots. It was fine: killing white people is reasonable!

A few weeks later at a Rainbow Coalition speech, President Clinton responded with these words:
"If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech"
At the time, many people took that as a triumphant, centrist viewpoint. That he was clearly the choice of the majority of America: see, he's not an extremist like Reagan and Mondale and those! He's a new Democrat! People like me said "clever political move that doesn't harm him anywhere," and knew he was the kind of guy that would say whatever people most wanted to hear. History proved us right, but at the time it gave him a big boost in popularity, even if Sister Souljah called him a racist for it.

People are comparing Senator Obama's speech to the Sister Souljah moment, saying this is his time to show he's centrist and not associated with that radical racism and anti-American rhetoric.

The thing is, this isn't the same thing, it's not even remotely related, and there are three big reasons why:

First, President Clinton was not a rap fan. He had not, for twenty years, hung out with rappers who talked about killing white people. He had not recently talked about what a great person Sister Souljah was, he'd not called her his close friend or spiritual advisor. He didn't know this woman as far as I know. Senator Obama and Reverend Wright have had a close relationship and the Senator from Illinois has praised the Reverend repeatedly, he even took the theme of his campaign and title of his book from Reverend Wright's sermons. The two are not merely people prominent in the news concurrently, they are closely associated.

Second, President Clinton's statement came not in response to personal criticism or questions, but without prompting at an unrelated meeting with blacks. He chose to personally reject that sort of statement without prompting. Senator Obama's statement was in response to personal questions directed at him repeatedly.

Third, President Clinton's statement was in June, Sister Souljah's interview came out in May. Senator Obama has been questioned and asked about and scrutinized about the relationship with Reverend Wright since last year in a Chicago newspaper. He took this long to respond, and only after weeks of pressure and months of scrutiny.

I can't read Senator Obama's mind, so I can't say if this speech was an honest repudiation of Reverend Wright's kooky hate or not. Reverend Wright thinks he's just saying this stuff because he has to politically, not because he really means it.
“He’s a politician, I’m a pastor,” he said. “We speak to two different audiences. And he says what he has to say as a politician. I say what I have to say as a pastor. But they’re two different worlds.”

He added, “I do what I do. He does what politicians do. So that what happened in Philadelphia where he had to respond to the sound bytes, he responded as a politician.”
Yet even if he means what he says sincerely, this is not a Sister Souljah Moment for Senator Obama because it won't reach out to the middle and assure them he's not a radical. It will assure them he's a politician of the stripe he's been campaigning about being different from. The kind of guy who says what it takes to be elected, who tosses friends out on their ear if they are a problem, who uses people to get what he wants then moves on. The moderates of America won't be attracted by this move.

Maybe if Senator Obama had immediately and clearly made these statements months ago, he could have had a chance. Instead he supported the man, claimed he'd not heard anything controversial, then when confronted with the fact that he had, ducked reporters, left press conferences early, complained about debates being mean to him, and finally said "well I don't care for it either."
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Damn this traffic jam, how I hate to be late, it hurts my motor to go so slow.
-James Taylor, Traffic Jam

Honda CVCC
There is a fellow named Mees in Australia who examined efficiency of automobiles over the years and points out something that I've mentioned before: the fuel economy isn't really getting better. Clay Lucas at the Sydney Morning Herald has the story:
Cars are no more fuel-efficient today than they were in the 1960s, a transport expert says.

In research for the Garnaut climate change review, Paul Mees, of Melbourne University, has used Bureau of Statistics figures to show fuel efficiency has remained practically unchanged since 1963.

The average Australian car then used 11.4 litres of petrol to travel 100 kilometres. In 2006, the bureau's Survey of Motor Vehicle Use shows, it was unchanged.
How does this work? The SMH website links to a handy fuel consumption database from the Australian government that lets you look up cars from 1986 to 2003, and compare their fuel economy (the numbers are official test numbers, not what you get actually on the road).

For example, the Honda Civic 2 door hatchback got 7.2 liters/100km driving in the city and 6.2 in highway driving (courtesy, that translates to around 37.2 in the city, and 38 on the highway). The modern Civic hatchback gets slightly less fuel economy. The old tiny Honda CVCC sold in the 1970s got around 50 miles per gallon of actual use, the modern hybrid Toyota Prius gets around 35-40.

As he points out, while engines are more efficient and powerful with fewer cylinders and smaller displacement (they use less gas per stroke of the piston), they also have a greater burden. Safety features such as air bags, tougher frames, better bumpers, and so on all add to weight and lower fuel economy. Air conditioning, GPS navigation, DVD players, CD players, lights, bells, whistles, and so on all lower fuel economy. In the end, while cars of old had less gadgetry, they also got about the same fuel efficiency.

Consumers demand the gadgets, governments demand the safety features and other things that reduce fuel economy. As a result, the modern technology that gives us such efficient engines is negated by the modern demands for technology. You could build a car that got 75-100 miles a gallon, but it would be like driving a tin can and you'd have to pull it up hills.

There's more though. Modern engines really tend to get into their stride around 25-50,000 miles. By that point you've worked out all the kinks and the thing runs comfortably. In the 1960s, the engines died around 50,000 miles. The 1968 car belched all manner of gasses and filth into the air, modern cars burn much cleaner, so even though they are little more or no more efficient, they also are easier on the lungs. The interior space is better as well due to changes in design, and they are much more comfortable to ride in and drive.

There's also a basic economic law in action here: the more efficient you tend to make something, the more people will use it. That's not universally true, but it does tend to be accurate. Computers can help you get things done faster, but you don't then have lots of time to kick back and relax, they just give you more time to do other work, so you spend the same or more time on the job as ever. Efficiency doesn't necessarily reduce consumption.

And finally: you can, at this time, choose a more fuel efficient car than you could in the 1960s. You can get a car stripped down without all the gadgets and bells and whistles (unless you get a Prius, in which case the gadgets are most of the point of the car). That would give you increased efficiency, and as Top Gear pointed out in entertaining fashion, you can drive hyper-efficiently as well: Jeremy Clarkson drove a diesel Audi from London to Glasgow and back on one tank of gas (something the manufacturers didn't think was possible). Most of mileage at this point truly is a matter of personal choice: you can get better mileage than you can.

As a final point I love the way you can find nearly any research information you need on the Internet. I was about to tear my hair out thinking about how complex it was going to be to figure liters/100 km to miles per gallon.

*Tip of the Aussie bush hat to Tim Blair, whence I got this article.
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"My name is Robert Neville. I am a survivor living in New York City. I am broadcasting on all AM frequencies. I will be at the South Street Seaport everyday at mid-day, when the sun is highest in the sky. If you are out there... if anyone is out there... I can provide food, I can provide shelter, I can provide security. If there's anybody out there... anybody... please. You are not alone."

I Am legend
By now most people know that the book I Am Legend by Richard Matheson has been made into a movie a few times. The most famous version is Charleton Heston in Omega Man from the 1970s, a movie that was great but has not aged well. The most recent version starred Will Smith and my brother and I got it from Netflix a few days ago and watched it last night.

I Am Legend, briefly, is the story of a man who survives a horrendous plague. Almost everyone dies from the disease, of the few survivors, most turn into ghastly monsters, and very very few are immune to it, and end up prey to the mosters. Save one man, the legend, played by Will Smith. Here's how his character Lt Colonel Richard Neville explains it:
Six billion people on Earth when the infection hit. KV had a ninety-percent kill rate, that's five point four billion people dead. Crashed and bled out. Dead. Less than one-percent immunity. That left twelve million healthy people, like you, me, and Ethan. The other five hundred and eighty-eight million turned into your dark seekers, and then they got hungry and they killed and fed on everybody.
KV started as a cancer cure, a bioengineered virus that absolutely cured all kinds of cancer. Unfortunately after a while the virus mutated, and turned the test subjects into vampiric creatures. They are tremendously strong, very fast, have an animalistic mentality, and cannot tolerate ultraviolet light.

As far as Neville knows, he's the last man alive, but he holds out hope, sending out a message constantly on the AM radio frequencies telling people to meet him at a certain place each day at noon.

This was a riveting movie, it held my attention for the full length and did not seem over long. Until the very end I couldn't predict what would happen, and there were very few points where I said "what the!!?!?" This is rare, almost all movies are packed with these - don't get me started on 3:10 to Yuma or The Two Towers. Children will probably be scared out of their hair by this movie, I would have had nightmares until I was 20 if I watched this as a little guy. There's no sex, no nudity, the violence is impressive but not gory, and there is little profanity. You won't regret renting this film, and I think it should have done better in the theaters, although it doesn't have a lot of repeat viewing potential like some.

The film is very well done in terms of direction and set design. The art direction and camera work is fantastic, the CGI is fairly smooth and seamless (although the zombie dogs were a bit awkward). The ruins of an abandoned and monster-hunted Manhattan were wonderful, they looked appropriate for three years abandonment. Plants are rapidly taking over, deer run in packs, but the buildings are largely untouched. Some are slightly damaged at the ground level, but most of it looks much like today. That was a very effective touch, because too much aging and it would look like Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, which is way too much damage for 3 years.

The technology was largely plausible as well, Neville had over three years constant effort managed to cobble together a reasonable amount of comforts that were plausible. There is quite a bit of gasoline still available in New York City, and for now, he has gas powered generators to run his home and a wide variety of cars at his disposal. He runs the city during the day, watching DVDs, hunting, checking house to house systematically with a map for supplies, and so on. He has a lot of guns as well, but there was no sign of any autoloading equipment. Although he was a soldier, it appears that he doesn't much care for guns other than for emergencies.

The sound of the movie was very well done as well, from the clatter of deer hooves on pavement to the guns to cautiously stepping on money and hearing it louder than it really is in fear, the sound was excellent. One thing about firing guns that people don't understand until doing so is how loud they are: ear-splitting.

Speaking of loud, Will Smith's acting was terrific. He's consistent from scene to scene, he doesn't play his happy go lucky blackified character from most of his previous movies (Pursuit of Happyness seems to have been the first movie he really matured in). He's just a man trying to survive and working on his science, the fact that he happens to be black is incidental - which is where culture needs to go.

Smith does an excellent job of portraying a man who is so alone, he is tortured and lonely and desperate, yet still driven to do right and working each day at goals to keep his sanity and purpose. His fear is palpable, it is so well done you share the fear he feels in individual scenes. His absolute alone-ness is very clear as well, by the end he's beginning to go a little mad.

Will Smith had to be incredible in this movie to make it work. 75% or more of the movie he is on the screen without anyone else. Much of the movie has no dialog at all, if he couldn't pull off doing this alone, it would have been a pretty poor movie. After watching the movie, I can think of few living actors that could have pulled this off at all. The sad thing is I cannot think of a single actress.

The director of I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, previous movie: Constantine) started out with certain presumptions. He knew that audiences would know the basic concept of the movie well enough to not need much explanation. The movie doesn't really explain much at all. Smith's character pours some substance on his steps early in the movie, but what it is and why he's doing it is never explained, although you can more or less puzzle it out by the end. Sometimes this doesn't work well, as later in the movie when he sees what is probably blood dripping off something but the shot is so tight it's difficult to even see what he's looking at.

There is little incidental music in the movie. The sound effects and Will Smith's reactions carry the scenes and give them their emotion. Editing is minimal, the director's style is minimal: he tells the story, lets Will Smith do his job, and does not feel compelled to stamp his ego all over every scene. The suspense in some of the scenes is incredible, this was the most stressful and even frightening film I've seen in a long time, yet the usual tricks were not used. There were few bits where a monster jumped out at the screen, no sudden explosion of music, no false positives where a cat runs out and everyone goes "ohh, it was just the cat." It was just plausible, palpable fear that built and built. There were some flaws in this by the end (see annoyances below) but most of the movie was masterful.

The general worldview of the movie was hesitantly positive, generally theistic, and based upon absolute ethics. The military was portrayed positively, science was showed as flawed and challenged, and while effective not the answer to all our problems. Violence was shown unapologetically as a proper solution to the right situations. Lt Col Neville was clearly Christian at the start of the chaos, goes through a very dark night of the soul as he struggles with God, then regains his faith in a minor, subtle way. He blames the evils of the world on humanity, and he tirelessly works for the good of people. He has a plain division of importance between animal and human: he spends the entire movie attempting to cure the vampire creatures.

Overall I Am Legend is a pleasant change from the usual worldview of Hollywood movies.

Neville and SamThis section will have some spoilers, so if you don't care to know some details of the movie before watching it, here's where you should stop reading.

Every movie I watch has a few bits where I am annoyed or am just aghast at how stupid or irrational it was. Sometimes these are small points, sometimes they are big. Overall, I Am Legend had few of these. That said, there were some.

Almost all of them came in the final act, where the characters of Anna (Alice Braga) and Ethan (Charlie Tahan) showed up. Ethan had no lines whatsoever and was just a cute kid to protect. The first two acts were terrific, but the third was weaker. Up to this point the movie was thoughtful and almost consistently logical, but when the "big explosive finale" came, it lost its hold on me. This is sadly a pattern for almost all movies. The January Man, for example: great cop movie, very well acted, I love Kevin Klein. Then at the end, it degrades into a dull, annoying typical cop adventure where he murders all the suspects and destroys the evidence.

In I Am Legend, the end falls apart because the actions of the characters and bad guys cease to make sense. Here are a few examples:

In his house, two of the "dark seekers" manage to get inside and one shows that explosions don't bother him and bullets cannot hit him (despite Neville one-shotting almost everything else he aims at). In a scene, one of them hangs from the ceiling defying gravity in a way only a CGI creature can and is tearing a huge hole in it. Under a dresser, Anna and Ethan are hiding, and Ethan lets out a tiny squeak. The creature in the middle of dismantling the wood and plaster hears it, drops to the floor and starts to look for them.

Yet earlier, Neville walked into a room full of the creatures with a flashlight on, hissing his dog's name, and none of them noticed him. He sneaks out, stepping on crunchy objects and into a room with another monster, who doesn't notice him as he talks to his dog, until he turns the flashlight on him. Was this ceiling clinger just supernaturally perceptive, was he able to hear what none of the others could?

The trio of heroes flee to the doctor's lab, where he bolts a huge iron door three times and they hide behind a plexiglass shield. The monster blast through the door like it's made of tissue paper (suffering no apparent harm; this is a consistent theme in the movie: they can hit like a battering ram so hard they dent and tip over a car, but it doesn't hurt them). Then they begin to throw themselves against the plexiglass barrier in what is frankly a frightening display.

The problem is, the barrier exists because that's where he puts the monsters when he's trying to cure them; it's his safe box that they can't get out of. The lock is on the outside. He and the two others are hiding on the inside. If the lock mechanism works on that side, how secure is that? If it works on the outside, why didn't the monsters show at least as much intelligence as a crow-brained velociraptor in Jurassic Park (another annoyance) and open the door on their first try?

They pummel and bash at the glass with their apparently unharmed bodies (which a single bullet kills and a needle penetrates with ease) until it begins to crack, with the big main bad guy "dark seeker" who when he's first seen my brother said "we'll see him again." Neville comes to a conclusion: he hides (in plain sight, through the transparent plexiglass) the pair in a little nook with a metal door and no lock, then kill himself. He has a gun but doesn't shoot. He has a grenade, which apparently obliterates every single one of the "dark seekers" but he uses it as a suicide bomb rather than tossing it through the hole that the big guy makes. Why kill himself at all? Why did the "dark seekers" stop trying to get to their food source that they were so enraged at?

If they were able to crash through every substance known to man with their brute force, how is a little metal door going to stop them? The next scene is the girl and the boy driving to a colony of survivors in Vermont, no explanation, no scene of them getting out.

Other annoying bits included Will Smith's inconsistent indestructibility. This is something that has been building in movies for years now and has become a standard feature. Ever since Die Hard where Karl and Detective McClane beat each other into mashed potatoes without any real appearance of harm (Karl hanging by his neck from a chain for ten minutes without ill effects), the hero of movies have gotten ever more unkillable. You can get hit dead center by a bus at 40 miles an hour and wake up in the hospital rather than being turned into paste, for example.

In this movie, Neville falls three stories without even having the wind knocked out of him or being dazed, is slamed through bannisters and crashes down staircases, is bitten for a minute straight by a monster on the neck and is marred only by a blood stain (on the wrong side of his shirt). In other places, the damage is reasonable: he stabs himself in the leg with a knife and has a limp from then after. His being hung by a cord by one leg for an hour or more all but paralyzes that leg and he has to crawl to his car (that is strangely further from the trap when he's going back than when he went to it). This stuff annoys me: humans break fairly easy, even in terrific shape like Neville.

This is a minor nit, but the movie made absolutely sure that Neville never was able to shoot a deer for a meal. He hunted almost every day as near as I can figure, yet he repeatedly fails to get his kill. Killing humans that are sick? That's OK. Killing a dog? Gotta be off camera because it's so horrific. Killing a deer? CALL PETA!

Here are some other one-shot problems I noticed and grumbled a little bout:
How is a lion pack surviving the cold of New York City for three years?
Eventually, Neville's dog gets infected by some monster dogs. Neville tries to patch him up but it fails. Why did the serum work on the rat and not the dog? Why not save him rather than smother him?
There's a scene where a rather obvious trap is set up (but it's forgivable that Neville not spot it: he doesn't think the creatures are capable of this sort of thought), and when dark comes, the main "dark seeker" boss sends dogs after him. He fights off the dogs, barely, and then escapes. Why didn't the "dark seeker" boss go after him instead of just sending dogs?
For that matter, how did he know in the vastness of Manhattan that the mannequin was special to Neville? Why on earth did he think that would work?

And finally, the big question for all movies of this type:
Why don't zombies in these movies ever eat each other? They feast on the uninfected and do not eat each other. Why this is no one bothers to explain, it is a standard of zombie movies that is just assumed without being examined: why not eat fellow zombies?

By the way in the original book, the concept was even more interesting, but it would have made a pretty depressing movie. I Am Legend is called that not because he saved the world, but because the story is told from the perspective of the monsters, at the end. He goes around destroying them and trying to find other humans, and eventually fails. The monsters take over the world, and they have a legend about this bogeyman who comes out in the day, killing and destroying. They warn their kids about him, be good or the legend will come kill you. In the end, the legend is that he's a monster, and he figures it out, finally: they are their own people and he's murdering them.

Still, this was a great movie, and despite its weak ending and silly little flaws, I recommend watching it.
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On the subject of movies, if you want quick and easy popcorn but don't care for the expense of microwave popcorn, you don't need the special packets. All it takes is a lunchbag (those smaller paper bags), some bulk popcorn (around 30 cents a pound), a little bit of oil, butter, and salt. Dump enough popcorn into the bottom of the bag to cover it so you see no paper. pour maybe a quarter teaspoon of oil into the bag, close the top with two careful, small folds, and shake it up. Lay this on the side in your microwave and cook for 2-3 minutes, based on how powerful your microwave is.

You'll have to experiment with how long to cook the popcorn, which means the first few times you'll have to be there to watch it. Wait until the popcorn starts to slow cooking, somewhere around here you will need to stop and pull it out. If you wait until the popcorn stops popping entirely, you will get the pleasant aroma of burnt popcorn. Once you get the timing down, you can just use that time each instance and have it done easy.

Next, you need to melt your margarine or butter. Margarine works better in a microwave, it's very hard to melt butter without it separating in the microwave, which ruins its buttery qualities (for this, at least, its useful in other recipes). How much depends on how much popcorn, I use about a quarter stick for a single batch.

Pour the popcorn into a large container or sack, drizzle about a quarter of your melted margarine or butter. Add some salt: not too much, you can add more later if it isn't sufficiently salty, but you can't take it away. Shake the popcorn up, add another dose of butter and a few shakes of salt: repeat four times. By the end, you should have popcorn that is well coated and buttery salty good without having a few sponge-like oversaturated pieces and the rest dry.

Enjoy your cheap microwave popcorn, this takes about 5 minutes, max. Just enough time to avoid the annoying starting stuff on a DVD. Get a bowl, kick back, watch your movie. Some day I'll learn to make popcorn on the stove with oil, that's said to be the absolute best.

This is part of the Real Men Cook series.
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Quote of the Day

"If women ran the world, we would not have the jet engine. It has nothing to do with intellect. It just isn't in our nature to want one."
-Kate from Small Dead Animals
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Monday, April 28, 2008


"My brain hurts!"
-T. F. Gumby

Twiggy and Churchill
There are two industries where really stupid people can make it big: The entertainment industry and sports. In America, the land of opportunity, that's great, it gives idiots a chance to make something of themselves other than begging for navel lint and bashing their heads with rocks.

At the same time, for some odd reason the entertainment industry has gone beyond mere whim and spectacle to being actually influential on society and politics. It's one thing to put on a show to distract people from life, its another to think that, since you can put on a show, you are actually a meaningful and significant part of society, let alone some wise pundit. Here's a sampling:
"Smoking kills. If you're killed, you've lost a very important part of your life."
-Brooke Shields

"We're going to turn this team around 360 degrees."
-Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks

"I get to go to lots of overseas places, like Canada"
-Britney Spears

"I'm not Anorexic. I'm from Texas. Are there people from texas that are anorexic? I've never heard of one. And that includes me."
-Jessica Simpson

I think gay marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman
-Arnold Schwarzenegger

"What's Walmart, do they sell like wall stuff?
-Paris Hilton

“It’s not that I dislike many people. It’s just that I don’t like many people.”
-Bryant Gumbel

“I look at it as something I’m doing for black people in general.”
-Naomi Campbell on modeling

“I cried over beauty, I cried over pain, and the other time I cried because I felt nothing. I can’t help it. I’m just a cliché of myself.”
—Keanu Reeves

“I’ve got taste. It’s inbred in me.”
—David Hasselhoff

“I was asked to come to Chicago because Chicago is one of our fifty-two states.”
—Racquel Welch

“[I hope] my child will be a good Catholic like me.”

"I make Jessica Simpson look like a rock scientist"
-Tara Reid

"So, where’s the Cannes Film Festival being held this year?”
-Christina Aguilera

"I think that the film 'Clueless' was very deep. I think it was deep in the way that it was very light. I think lightness has to come from a very deep place if it's true lightness.
-Alicia Silverstone
Politicians say a lot of stupid stuff too, but for the most part I give them a pass because they talk all day for a living and have cameras on them. I say stupid stuff, but nobody has me on camera to repeat it for days afterward. For example, when Vice President Gore says (twice) that a Zebra doesn't change its spots, he just speaks so much in public he messes up a line or says something silly once in a while.

As Dan Quayle said: "Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things." The more you say in public, the more likely you'll say something really embarrassing. Yet actors and actresses don't stand around and extemporaneously answer questions and make speeches for a living. Almost all of their job consists of doing what they're told and reading what someone else wrote, much like a news anchor. They are glorified bingo callers, repeating what someone hands them.

So when they stand up and talk in public, the dumb things they say come from within, not from repetition and constant talk slipping up sometimes. They're saying the stuff that they think is thoughtful and important, they're revealing who they really are. The results can be hilarious or very sad, depending on your perspective. It's the political arena where stupid quotes by celebrities become particularly depressing and hilarious:
"I don’t know what our government does except put us into debt and blow up other countries."

"Our country has hit a point where we have lost so much,"... "We have lost lives, we've lost sacred freedoms, we've lost financial stability; we've lost our position of respect on the world stage."
-Robert Redford

“Very selfless and moral. One of the world’s wisest men.”
–Oliver Stone (on Fidel Castro)

“If you believe in freedom, if you believe in justice, if you believe in democracy, you have no choice but to support Fidel Castro!”
–Harry Belafonte.

“Fidel, I love you. We both have beards. We both have power and want to use it for good purposes.”
–Francis Ford Coppola.

“Socialism works. I think Cuba might prove that.”
–Chevy Chase.

"The oceans will be dead by the year 2000"
-Ted Danson

"70% of the world’s fisheries are at a point of collapse."
-Ted Danson when it was pointed out the oceans are not dead

"Bush stole the elections and since then we have all been suffering the consequences,"
-Jessica Lange

"Bush wasn't elected, he was selected— selected by five judges up in Washington who voted along party lines."
-Alec Baldwin

"If you asked would I live in London the rest of my life, yeah, I'd be very happy to stay here. There's nothing in America that I would miss at all."
-Robert Altman, who still lives in the US

“Bush says you’re either with us or against us. I don’t know who ‘us’ is."
-Susan Sarandon

"This is a racist and imperialist war."
-Woody Harrelson

"Bin Laden didn't come from the abstract. He came from somewhere, and if you look where ... you'll see America's hand of villainy."
-Harry Belafonte

“You think everyone over there is a college graduate? They’re 19 and 20-year-old kids who couldn’t get a job… You know, the soldiers are not scholars, they’re not war experts… They’re not the best people to ask about the war because they’re gonna die any second.”
—Richard Belzer

“Radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam in a country like America."
-Rosie O’Donnell
Now, in a sense I feel sorry for a lot of these actors because let's face it they aren't the sharpest pencil in the drawer, and most of them have probably been misled by people they work with and for. They are pretty insulated: they are surrounded by people who treat them like gods, they don't mix with people other than celebrities, they are not hearing any contrary viewpoints. It's sort of like poking the village idiot to hear him make funny noises, in a way it's cruel how they're kept from the whole story yet are trotted out to say stuff like this.

At some point I'd like to see the celebrity activist machine wind down so that they stop pontificating on things they clearly are clueless about and get back to just doing their jobs and having fun. The problem is, celebrities tend to feel like they aren't taken seriously (justifiably) and want to present themselves as more than just a script reader or a pretty face. They want to be seen as important, as more significant than being an actor.

Some, perhaps many, make so much money and are generally leftist that they feel guilty for not doing more, and this gives them a way of doing something to "give back" without actually, you know, doing anything. So Ted Danson works with Oceana and gives a small portion of his income to it, he gets quoted about the ocean and he can feel like he's done something worth while.

The problem is, they approach it in a childish way: I said something smart, did you see? I really feel like I've done something wonderful about the environment, I told people to buy a hybrid. I bought a Prius, did you see? I care. Do I drive it? Are you crazy, in LA? The good they are trying to do usually ends up being misguided, ill-informed, and is normally about everyone else doing more while they live their wonderful life. That's why Barbara Streisand can tell everyone else to dry clothes on a line and protect the ocean shore while living in a mansion that erodes the ocean cliffs and scoffs at the idea of personally hanging clothes on a line.

It's not about them being any better, it's about them being perceived as being better. The goal is not to fix things or make a better world, but to feel better about yourself. Some day I hope that changes again. Actors used to be considered pretty low on the totem pole, they were looked at as talented and entertaining, but crass, immoral, and poor company. Now everyone wants to be with a celebrity if they cannot be one themselves. I think the whole culture is poorer for it.
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One likes to believe
In the freedom of music
But glittering prizes
And endless compromises
Shatter the illusion
Of integrity
-Rush, The Spirit of Radio

The Recording Industry Association of America has gone after 40,000 people in the United States for "piracy," that is, downloading or copying music that they did not own or pay for. Of those cases, about 100 have gone to court to fight the charges. It's not that they are so cut and dry that there's no hope of winning in court, or that somehow the RIAA is unbelievably good at building cases. It's that Joe average can't afford to go to court to fight high powered lawyers that the RIAA can afford. So they settle out of court.

One person that did go to court was Tanya Andersen from Portland, Oregon. She went to court to fight, won, and is now taking the RIAA to court.
Her case is aimed at exposing investigative practices that are controversial and may be illegal, according to the lawsuit. One company hired by the record industry, she claims, snoops through people's computers, uncovering private files and photos, even though it has no legal right to do so. A different industry-backed company uses tactics similar to those of debt collectors, pressuring people to pay thousands of dollars in settlements even before any wrongdoing is proven. In Andersen's case, the industry's Settlement Support Center said that unless she paid $4,000 to $5,000 immediately, it would "ruin her financially," the suit alleges.

Andersen is going after the recording industry under conspiracy laws. She argues the Recording Industry Association of America, the industry's trade group, and its affiliates worked together on a broad campaign to intimidate people into making financial payoffs.
Again, I'm divided here as I have been in the past on copyright and music download issues. It's illegal to steal music even if you're just downloading one song. You are in effect taking money away from the businesses that produce the songs. Yes, they make billions and your one song won't hurt them noticeably. Yes, the actual artists get such a small portion of the profits that there barely is a human number to express how much you've taken from them. That doesn't stop it from being illegal and immoral.

The problem is, the RIAA is a nuisance, at best. They are strong arming everyone in sight, hacking into computers to find files that they then use to pressure people into paying settlements, they are using the legal system to pound on people for questionable reasons (you put those songs in your share folder, therefore you're a pirate!), they are in essence a big business thug, the worst of grinding soulless corporations.

It's true that the music industry has lost a lot of their profits in recent years, about the same time music sharing became possible and popular online. It's true that the recording industry is suffering from people enjoying their product without paying. Yet they have to share part of the blame as well for producing lousy products and raising prices. They should have jumped on the online opportunities immediately and began selling the songs individually for a reasonable price (99 cents isn't bad). They should have worked on copyright law to face the new realities. They didn't: they want to cling to late 90s profits in a noughties reality. They shouldn't have started using payola to force their packaged stars on the public rather than letting the music sell its self.

So like I said: I'm ambivalent about this, I can see merits on both sides. I want copyright laws to be updated so that they reflect modern realities. I want music to be better and inventive, not the same lame crap that we've had for over ten years now. Creativity in music is almost dead in the recording industry, of course people aren't willing to pay for it.

Mrs Anderson's case is having effects in the legal community:
Already, the Oregon Attorney General cited the arguments in Andersen's case when he asked a court to quash a request by the music industry for the names of 17 students at the University of Oregon who allegedly shared music online. "The RIAA is fighting very hard to make sure that [Andersen's case] never reaches a jury," says Heidi Li Feldman, a professor at Georgetown University's law school. "The minute this reaches a jury, they will have to think about settling."
The key to Mrs Anderson's case was the settlement process. Record companies claim that every downloaded song is a cost of thousands of dollars for them, but they have a special company created specifically to pressure people to settle. Their demand? $750 per song. If it costs so much, how does this addresss their losses? It doesn't, but what it does is put the number at a point that people might be ready to settle; and based on the numbers above, it is.

In the end, Mrs Anderson was proved innocent, someone had used her IP address to download songs and she was fingered for it. How many times has this happened? For someone with an unsecured wireless connection, it's easy to steal internet time. How many times has someone innocent simply paid rather than gone to court and faced the time and expense? The RIAA's computer experts took her computer (as she offered) and did a study, then resisted releasing the report until forced to by her lawyer. The report noted that she'd never downloaded any song as far as they could tell.

Her lawyer got the judge to force the RIAA to pay the court fees, to discourage them from doing this kind of thing again. The RIAA's lawyers tried to get her to sign an agreement that she would not countersue before they'd drop the case, Mrs Anderson refused. They eventually dropped the case anyway.

Mrs Anderson's lawyer believes that the IP sniffing techniques used to find pirates can be wrong as much as 20% of the time, and people settle to avoid the court time and costs. RIAA responded by closing down their old collections agency and starting a new one, the Settlement Information Line Call Center.

The RIAA's primary lawyer claims the MediaSentry system is not flawed. "The proof is in the pudding. We have obtained judgments against hundreds and hundreds of people," he says. After more than 40,000 cases? That's not very good odds.

This is one case that bears watching. If she succeeds, the floodgates will open for class action lawsuits against the RIAA. I sympathize to some degree with the recording industry's concerns and desires to stop theft, but I do not sympathize with their tactics. Sooner or later, if not this case then another down the road, this is going to bite them back.

Previously on WATN:
No Fair Use
Price vs Cute Kids
Royalties and Radio
RIAA and Extortion
Musicians Guild Dismayed
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"Obama Youth are just part of the marketing plan"

Obama Girl
One of the terms that is being mentioned a lot in the presidential election this year is the "Bradley Effect." It comes up in context of the Democratic primaries choosing between Senators Obama and Clinton, and is sometimes not explained well.

The Bradley Effect originated in the 1982 gubernatorial campaign for California. Tom Bradley, black mayor of Los Angeles ran against George Deukmejian, white Attorney General for the state. Polling data before the election gave Bradley a consistent and handy lead, exit polls on election day proved he had the win. The media declared Bradley a winner based on these polls, but when it was all counted, Deukmejian had won. Analysis of the polls revealed that a lot of the people who claimed they were going to or had voted for Bradley voted for Deukmejian instead.

Deukmejian's campaign manager had suggested this would happen before the election, and while he resigned due to the suggestion that racism was the cause, in the end the analysis is generally that he was right: bigots hating African Americans tried to cover their shame by pretending they would vote for the hated brown person, or so we're told.

The reason the Bradley Effect is brought up in this election is because Senator Obama is seeing a similar pattern. Polling before the election and exit polling both show his number larger than they actually end up in the end. Racism is murmured about: America is packed with bigots! For example, CNN has this article on their website:
As both Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton race to make history, some political observers believe Obama might have a unique problem because he's African-American.

They claim voters often say they'll go one way, then act quite differently at the polls when it comes to a candidate's race.
Notice the "political observers" are not named, which suggests to me it means "guys at the news office" but the tip toeing around this issue is pretty common. Nobody wants to (yet) come out and say "if you don't vote for Senator Obama you're a bigot!" yet it is being implied in some places and whispered in others. CNN calls this effect "unspoken" then goes on to speak about it, but the implication is clear: this is out there, but not being mentioned much.

The thing is, I'm not sure that is accurate. Could there be another reason than racism why the polling data shows higher numbers for Bradley or Obama (or Wilder, in another election in Virginia) than they actually get?

Some suggest that it isn't so much racism as a desire to be perceived as not racist. When asked questions, pollsters have found in the past that at least some people will tend to give the answer that they think the pollster wants to hear or is looking for, so they will be "right" on this "test." Pollsters attempt to avoid this by how they word questions or order the queries, but in a direct "who will you vote for" analysis, that's not realistic.

I think there is some merit in that, and the thought that some people will give statements that they think they are supposed to in society, then act as they are otherwise inclined to when it comes to voting. Yet there's a post by Karl on Protein Wisdom that has a comment I think answers the question better than any of these options:
How do they know that people said one thing and did another? They don’t poll every potential voter, but they do count every actual vote.

What if the voters who say they’ll vote for the black guy are less likely to actually show up at the polls than those who don’t? Maybe they’re not in the habit of voting, or they don’t have a ride, or they’re just not that into it.

I’d call it the “Obama girl” effect, myself. It ain’t racism, folks: it’s inertia.
-by Dicentra
There are two offerings here, first the basic "polling is not as accurate or useful as the legacy media seems to think" which is my default position. You poll 800 people and claim to speak for 300 million? Get a real job. Polling is largely divination, like reading tea leaves: it can be accurate if done properly, but that's more to do with common sense and luck than any science.

However, it is Dicentra's second point that most intrigues me and makes me wonder if it isn't the real answer - both for Obama and Bradley. What if, instead of any sort of racism, the answer has more to do with sloth and enthusiasm? Senator Obama is said to be getting large numbers of youth support, that young people love the guy and are big supporters. The crowds are full of younger voters, his volunteers tend to be younger (when they aren't Che supporting radical freaks). Yet the mythical Youth Vote

Here's a bit I wrote about in February about the Youth Vote:
Here's a classic example of this sort of outlook. remember the Obama Girl? The girl who sang a pop soul song about how she had a crush on Senator Obama? She didn't vote.
“I didn’t get a chance to vote today because I’m not registered to vote in New York,” she said.

So where is Obama Girl registered to vote?

“New Jersey.”

Um, but didn’t New Jersey also hold a primary?

True. The problem, she explained, was that she was sick in New York City and was unable to get back across the Hudson River to the polls in Jersey City.

“I was in Arizona for the Super Bowl — every time I get in the airplane I get sick,” said Ms. Ettinger, who did manage to make it to the Svedka Fembot election returns party at Chinatown Brasserie at Lafayette and Great Jones streets.
At least she got to the post-election party. Miss Ettinger is 26 years old and represents no small slice of society.
The Obama Girl effect is a subsidiary of the Youth Vote myth, in which young people who are big supporters of a candidate are very loud in support but very light in actual turnout when it comes to voting.

Another commenter suggested a pattern for youth when it comes to elections:
Remember back when you were young. The motivations are far more primitive and simple.

* 1) Raise some hell a lot. We’re bored. Maybe get in that cute poll workers scivies. Being where the action is. Party on. Political action. Fuck Yeah!!!111wlwventyonest!!!11

* 2) Voting? Actually going to a polling booth and hanging with “the man”? Ewwww. Thats so what parents and old people do.

- The rites of spring.
-by Big Bang Hunter (pumping you up)
This makes more sense to me than mere racism, which while it might play a part does not really seem to fit this campaign. For the Bradley campaign, a similar effect might have happened: people who supported the black candidate against the cracker republican, but weren't particularly inclined to vote. My vote doesn't matter, it's all rigged anyway, voting is too white, voting is too old, voting is participating in the phallocracy.

The exit polling data is a bit different, but I think that falls more under the basic flaws with exit polls. They're almost always off, partly because most people avoid pollsters if they can unless they are really zealous or want to share their opinions. Another factor is that the people who do exit polling tend to fit a certain profile: young, eager, left-leaning. This will affect who wants to talk to them and who will tend to avoid them. Exit polling almost always leans left, giving the more leftist candidate more points than they actually got. This has something to do with the voters themselves: who's more likely to talk to a pollster after voting, who is more likely to have to get busy or move on, or just does not care to tell someone who they voted for?

There's real racism in America, and it has some effect on elections, but I really do think the primary reason for the polling discrepancies (beyond basic flaws with polling) has little to do with racism.
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