Thursday, March 28, 2013

Local TV news: 'Sunny today, but that could change.'

Local TV news is a bit like Drunk Uncle: It will never shut up or leave. Ed Rabel, an Emmy Award-winning former television news correspondent, confesses: "Not to be dispiriting, but there is very little reason to watch the local news. If you're satisfied to simply see the day's digest of house fires, fender benders and high school reunions, fine. Otherwise, the regional boob-tube newscasts are nothing more than a "vast wasteland" in the words of one-time FCC Chairman Newton Minow. Basically, the items they flog as news are merely undemanding fillers located between used-car commercials and mattress ads." Or as Ron Burgundy would say, "You stay classy, [insert your local town]."

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Seeing is easy with eyes closed

Watching the conservative old men in black robes tie themselves into knots over same-sex marriage this week has been amusing -- and a little sad. Everyone knows that any rational ruling should bend toward equality. America is just waiting for the justices -- i.e., the COMIBR -- to awaken to the fact that it's no longer 1954. And yet, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's observation has never been truer: “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” Naturally, Roberts, Scalia, Alito et al are conforming to stereotype. Take Nino, for example. Webster's should add his full name to its dictionary as an additional definition for the noun "anachronism." To wit: “When did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage?” Scalia asked Ted Olson, the ex-solicitor general for the George W. Bush administration and a Republican. “When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit interracial marriages?” Olson retorted. Touché, as they say. Yeats said, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” Let's hope the COMIBR possess senses capable of being sharpened.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Hillary 2008: Thwarted by a malign star?

I LOVE IT when star pundits make sweeping assertions as though they were God's Own Truth. Take Kathleen Parker, reigning queen bee at the Washington Post Commentariat. In her latest column -- part perfumed valentine, part plea for Hillary to run for president, and part resume for a future press secretary job -- she writes: "President Obama visits the Middle East, makes history as he speaks war to Syria and Iran and peace to Israelis and Palestinians, and the talk back home circles The Big Question: Will Hillary run?" Yes, there's circular talk alright -- but it is only inside the Beltway. The actual Big Question: How Hillary-obsessed will the national press corps become? And yeah, I noticed how Parker belittled Obama, too. She actually does it twice. Anyway, there's nary a sound about Hillary in the rest of America. And for good reason: Election Day 2016 doesn't begin for, well, 1,325 days, 15 hours, and (as of this writing) 10 minutes. Just so we're clear: That's 3 years, 7 months and 9 days from today.

That said, Parker says the "zeitgeist" is ready for a female president. I agree. But is it ready for Hillary? Taking a stab at that potent question would have made a very interesting column. Instead, Parker whines about the Last Campaign. Hillary "coulda been a contenda," Parker suggests. But, alas, The Female Chosen One was thwarted in her 2008 bid by "this man Obama, this deus ex machina who descended from some distant star to blind the masses with his light. His destiny, alas, was greater than hers and so, once again, Hillary had to wait." Sooo ... you're sayin' Hillary was a powerless bystander? Really, Ms. Parker? That all you got? And did you have to go all Latin on us, too? I mean, deus ex machina?

Two can play that game, for I have an alternative theory: This man Obama, this alis volat propriis ("he who flies by his own wings") who ascended 35,000 ft. and flew 530 nautical miles from Chicago to DC in coach, was the better candidate. Full stop. And as such, he swept the floor with that chaotic campaign known as "Hillaryland" and won. It's also worth bearing in mind that Hillaryland's dysfunction had a bit something to do with Parker's objet d 'art politique: um, Hillary.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Time to stop whining, I guess

As usual, Jack Shafer cuts through the bull: "I’ve yet to meet anybody who used Google’s RSS Reader more, or pushed it harder than I have over the last eight years. ... [But] the old software maxim — if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product — is true of almost every Google service. Google sells your Gmail activity — as well as your searches of the Web, images, maps, and use of its other services — to advertisers. We, the Google Reader product, weren’t producing much, if anything, in revenue for Google, so the company fired us."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Say it ain't so, Google

Forget the Pope. "Hear that? That's the sound of millions of news junkies on the Web scrambling to find an alternative to Google Reader. The search giant has announced that it will shutter its much-maligned, though still widely used RSS Reader, which will, no doubt, leave many users in a tizzy, searching for other ways to subscribe to their favorite RSS feeds." That's how CNET reported the breaking news this afternoon. I'll be among those in a tizzy. Lemme get this straight: You've got a workmanlike product that's reliable and popular. So you kill it? Google's corporate motto is: "Don't be evil." This isn't evil. It's just stupid.

Habemus Papam

THE TELEVISION was on but muted. I saw the white smoke as I happened to look up. So, the Conclave has chosen a new Pope. That was quick. It's only Day 2. Naturally, the media is covering the event like the Super Bowl. The adjective "breathless" leaps to mind. Something unseemly about that. I un-mute the TV. MSNBC's Tamron Hall is gushing. "We're glad you could speak to us, Chris, especially since two of your relatives were nuns and you're a Catholic." That would be Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC's Hardball. I have a passel of Catholic relatives, too. Didn't realize that qualified me as a Vatican expert like Matthews. I watched the curious blend of pontiff-mania, stilted pageantry and medieval proceedings a little while longer. Matthews begins spinning yarns about the nuns of his youth. Decorum compelled me to hit the mute button.

Friday, March 8, 2013

It was a dark and stormy day ...

THE WINDOWS of my study rattled as broadside after broadside of afternoon wind and hail battered them. Hail. Frozen, white, quarter-inch balls of hail. In Arizona. I could hardly believe it as the hail began to accumulate in blowing drifts along the ground. It looked like glassy snow. In Arizona. Wow. The Phoenix area almost never gets "weather," the character-building, soul-trying conditions that I experienced (and mostly enjoyed) on the East Coast. It was nice to get a taste of that again today.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Beware of do-gooders bearing gifts

I NEARLY FELL for it. Back in 2009, a group of Harvard undergrads devised a brilliant product: a soccer ball that creates and stores electricity during game play. In 30 minutes of play, the "Soccket" can power an LED lamp for 3 hours. Presto! A clean, cheap, Eco-friendly energy source for the downtrodden in developing nations. Socckets are now being marketed by Uncharted Play, a for-profit "social enterprise" that aims to "create fun products and services that address real world issues and bring joy to the masses." So what's not to like? Nothing, except the old adage: Beware of do-gooders bearing gifts to brown people. There is no shortage of well-meaning (mostly white) people offering donor-driven, top-down, photogenic solutions to Third World problems. The problem, as critics Aaron Ausland and Kelsey Timmerman point out here and here, is that virtually all of these "solutions" fail the Fish Test. To wit: In impoverished regions, is it better to give a man a fish or teach a man to fish? The answer is obvious -- except, evidently, to those pushing their feel-good but futile products. The Soccket is a cool invention that I hope will find utility somewhere. But it's still a fish. And, as Ausland argues, it represents everything that's wrong with international development today. At bottom, the problem isn't electricity, it's poverty.

Caution: Media train wreck ahead

IN THE NEWS today: Senate confirms Brennan as CIA director. Check. Obama signs Violence Against Women Act. Check. North Korea vows to turn U.S. into "sea of flames." Whatever. Check. Jodi Arias trial's focus is graphic sex, not murder. [Cue the screeching tires sound effect] Um, wait. Wha? Who is Jodi Arias and why is the media insisting that I know? Long story short: Arias and her boyfriend had lots and lots of gratuitous sex (in every conceivable form), and then she killed him. In self-defense, she says. She's now on trial for her life. So just how salacious is this trial? Hint: The photo of Arias at left was shown to the jury as Exhibit Q or whatever. Well, perhaps America will grow up one day and learn to ignore these sensational episodes of human failing. Oh stop laughing. I'm serious. Attaining cultural maturity is not impossible. What's that? I can't hear you over the cackling. Oh never mind.

Hillary does Zoolander

Oh I kid the former secretary of state and presumed Democratic frontrunner in 2016.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Iraq War: Not a pretty picture 10 years later

AFTER 9/11, it didn't take long before American shock transmuted to white hot anger. With the sound of those jet engines slamming into the Twin Towers still ringing in my ears, I vividly recall my own rage. President Bush stoked it further when he stood atop the rubble in New York and said, "I can hear you ... and the people who knocked down these walls will hear from all of us soon." Understandably, America was spoiling for a fight and we wanted our pound of flesh. We unthinkingly gave Bush carte blanche to get it. He unthinkingly obliged us with the Iraq War, launched 10 years ago this month. The Butcher of Baghdad had nothing to do with 9/11. But there was a seductive logic to knocking him off: In theory, he could potentially arm terrorists with WMDs in the future. But how great was this potential? Virtually nil. But that is the crucial question that should have been asked -- but wasn't -- before spilling blood in Iraq. And so Bush invaded Iraq willy-nilly with a 2-to-1 ratio of support from the American people. The cost: Eight years of war, at least a trillion dollars in US treasury, 36,709 dead and wounded American soldiers plus 50,152 Iraqi civilian fatalities. And, in the end, the war bought us the world's 9th most politically unstable country, according to the think-tank Fund for Peace. But aren't the Iraqis better off without Saddam? Yes, unquestionably. But was it worth the price we Americans paid? Before attempting to answer that question, I'd advise asking the 1% of Americans who endured multiple, PTSD-inducing combat tours in Iraq -- and the families of the 4,486 U.S. soldiers who returned home in coffins.

Don't cry for me, Venezuela

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, soldier and politician, born July 28, 1954; died March 5, 2013.

The Guardian's obituary perhaps summed it all up best: "Populist leader of Venezuela – a charismatic hero to the poor who denounced capitalism and persecuted his opponents." El Comandante was not exactly a dictator, but he was no Thomas Jefferson.

Some, like scholar Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, are quick to apply a "Che" Guevara-like hallow to Chávez: "The facts speak for themselves: the percentage of households in poverty fell from 55% in 1995 to 26.4% in 2009. When Chávez was sworn into office unemployment was 15%, in June 2009 it was 7.8%. Compare that to current unemployment figures in Europe."

True. But Guardiola-Rivera (and legions of blinkered leftists) never confronts the crucial question: At what cost?

That's left to Venezuelan writer Francisco Toro (and many others): "Today millions of Venezuelans will weep tears of genuine anguish at his passing. ... It's just that, over the past fourteen years, he exploited that vein ever more ruthlessly, strip-mining the people's affection for the gratification of a monstrously overgrown ego and dismantling the institutions of democratic life in the process." As Toro outlines, those facts speak for themselves, too -- in spades.

And then there's Oliver Stone, this time on a mission to revise history before it's written. "Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chavez will live forever in history." That, I doubt.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Leave the smarts, take the cannoli

Fredo Corleone [exasperated]: "I'm your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over!" Michael [calmly]: "That's the way Pop wanted it." Fredo [angry, out of control]: "It ain't the way I wanted it! I can handle things! I'm smart! Not like everybody says ... I'm smart ... and I want respect!" With that classic Godfather scene in mind, Daniel Dewy, a specialist in machine superintelligence, asks: "How do we know the human brain doesn’t represent the upper limit of intelligence? Human brains are really good at the kinds of cognition you need to run around the savannah throwing spears. But we’re terrible at anything that involves probability." You know, stuff like representative democracy, macroeconomics, supreme court decisions, war, and battling climate change. Me [angry, out of control]: "But, Daniel, we're smart ... not like everybody says!" And then I remember that we're no longer on the savannah chucking spears. Right. Humanity may be in deeper trouble than we realize. I know it was you, Fredo ...

Removing a peculiar asterisk

IT'S JAW-DROPPING but official. Some 147 years after the Union ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, and (as SNL noted) 4 months after Lincoln opened in theaters, the Magnolia State has freed the slaves. According to ABC News, until February 7, 2013, the state Mississippi had never submitted the required documentation to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, meaning it never officially had abolished slavery. Talk about par for the course. William Faulkner famously said, "To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi." That, alas, means I'll never understand the world.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Jousting with Obama

I LOVE IT when White House reporters boldly attempt to go one-on-one with President Obama intellectually. They actually expect to win the tournament. And every time, they get slam-dunked or otherwise taken to school by the Professor in Chief. During press briefings, it's like a scene out of The Paper Chase where cocksure Harvard law students attempt to match wits with Professor Charles Kingsfield (played by John Houseman) -- and lose. Take yesterday's press conference on the sequester mess. AP's Julie Pace, a bright Northwestern University grad, tried to goad the president into admitting he's no Daniel Day Lewis, I mean, Lincoln. To wit:
Pace: "Mr. President, how much responsibility do you feel like you bear for these cuts taking effect?"
As usual, Obama responded thoughtfully and at length. But the Paper Chasing Ms. Pace wasn't satisfied, so she daringly went for the presidential jugular. Big mistake:
Pace: "It sounds like you're saying that this is a Republican problem and not one that you bear any responsibility for."
Obama flashed his trademark mega-smile, steadied his gaze, and fingered the trigger of his impending trap.
"Well, Julie, give me an example of what I might do?" Obama asked playfully.
"I'm just trying to clarify your statement," Pace responded, now squirming.
"Well, no, but I'm trying to clarify the question," Obama said, pulling the trigger.
Kersplat, goes the trap. Ms. Pace, you've just been served. Obama completes his shot:
"What I'm suggesting is, I've put forward a plan that calls for serious spending cuts, serious entitlement reforms, goes right at the problem that is at the heart of our long-term deficit problem. I've offered negotiations around that kind of balanced approach. And so far, we've gotten rebuffed because what Speaker Boehner and the Republicans have said is, we cannot do any revenue, we can't do a dime's worth of revenue. So what more do you think I should do? Okay, I just wanted to clarify. (Laughter.) Because if people have a suggestion, I'm happy to -- this is a room full of smart folks." (More laughter)
Heh. Next up, CNN's Jessica Yellin, a Harvard College grad, magna cum laude no less.
Yellin: "Mr. President, to your question, what could you do - first of all, couldn’t you just have them down here and refuse to let them leave the room until you have a deal?" (Laughter.)
Obama -- Harvard grad, Law Review, and constitutional scholar -- again flashed that winsome smile, targeted his quarry and, well, you know what's coming.
Obama: "I mean, Jessica, I am not a dictator. I’m the President. So, ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say, we need to go to catch a plane, I can't have Secret Service block the doorway, right? So ..."
Yellin (again trying the mythical Lincoln gambit): "But isn’t that part of leadership? I’m sorry to interrupt, but isn’t –"
Obama (lowering the boom): "I understand. And I know that this has been some of the conventional wisdom that's been floating around Washington that somehow, even though most people agree that I’m being reasonable, that most people agree I’m presenting a fair deal, the fact that they don't take it means that I should somehow do a 'Jedi mind-meld' with these folks and convince them to do what’s right. Well, they're elected. ... And this idea that somehow there’s a secret formula or secret sauce to get Speaker Boehner or Mitch McConnell to say, you know what, Mr. President, you’re right, we should close some tax loopholes for the well-off and well-connected in exchange for some serious entitlement reform and spending cuts of programs we don't need. I think if there was a secret way to do that, I would have tried it. I would have done it. ... What I can do is I can make the best possible argument. And I can offer concessions, and I can offer compromise. I can negotiate. I can make sure that my party is willing to compromise and is not being ideological or thinking about these just in terms of political terms. And I think I've done that and I will continue to do that. But what I can't do is force Congress to do the right thing."
Nor can he force White House correspondents to ask smarter questions. Obama 2, Reporters 0.