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Saturday, May 30, 2009
 
C-O-N-S-E-R-V-A-T-I-V-E Power!
Yo yo yo, dog, here comes the hip-hop duo of the Michael Steele era! Trust me, conservatism has never been cooler:

Gonna put that on my Microsoft Zune, yo, and play it full blast on my car ster-e-o.

Looking for something with a little more street cred, G? Well, let's get a little down and dirty with some old-skool crack era rappers -- Partners in Kryme!


Friday, May 29, 2009
 
I Think I Can Name Two Guys Who Didn't Graduate Summa Cum Laude
Via Te-Nehisi Coates, a peek inside the wingnut echo chamber. Here Fred Barnes and Bill Bennett talk about Sonia Sotomayor's educational background:

BARNES: I think you can make the case that she's one of those who has benefited from affirmative action over the years tremendously.

BENNETT: Yeah, well, maybe so. Did she get into Princeton on affirmative action, one wonders.

BARNES: One wonders.

One could also find out, but oh, never mind.

BENNETT: Summa Cum Laude, I don't think you get on affirmative action. I don't know what her major was, but Summa Cum Laude's a pretty big deal.

BARNES: I guess it is, but you know, there's some schools and maybe Princeton's not one of them, where if you don't get Summa Cum Laude then or some kind of Cum Laude, you then, you're a D+ student.

Again, no way of finding out, so let's just go straight to the snarky implications.

Monday, May 25, 2009
 
The Odd Ubiquity Of The Number 9

It's not uncommon for Hollywood movies with similar titles to appear at approximately the same time. But this summer we're apparently going to witness a harmonic convergence of sorts: Nine, 9, District 9 and 9.99 are all coming to a cineplex near you.

Presumably the same one, at the same time.


 
Memorial Day Radio
I was driving around late this morning, running errands and listening to public radio, and happened to heard this remarkable interview with Dr. John Linner. In 1945 Linner was a 26-year-old physician tending to the wounded at Omaha Beach on D-Day. He saved a lot of lives that day, but saw countless more soldiers killed. It's a remarkable interview on any day of the year, but it is especially poignant to hear it on Memorial Day.

Sunday, May 24, 2009
 
Was Bill Clinton A Homophobe? Don't Ask
Frank Rich is a pretty sensible guy, but his latest New York Times column -- on the subject of gay rights -- contains this odd statement:

The Democrats do have the votes to advance the gay civil rights legislation Obama has promised to sign. And they have a serious responsibility to do so. Let’s not forget that “don’t ask” and DOMA both happened on Bill Clinton’s watch and with his approval.

I agree that the Democrats should act on repealing DADT as well as DOMA. But to say that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was designed to bar gays and lesbians from military service is flat-out wrong. It's an idea that has somehow worked its way into the conventional wisdom. But it's not true.

Consider the situation before DADT. Recruiters routinely asked recruits questions about their sexual activities and sexual orientation. The military spent a lot of time and resources in identifying and outing gays and lesbians who were serving in the military. It didn't matter if they were exemplary soldiers. It didn't matter if they were closeted; it didn't matter if they were discreet. Witch hunts against anyone even suspected of being gay or lesbian were commonplace.

DADT was designed to get the military out of the business of looking for gays and lesbians to throw out of the service. The policy stated that as long as you did your job and were reasonably discreet, you wouldn't get bounced out.

Looking back from today, DADT might seem like a trivial and mealy-mouthed change from the old policy. But make no mistake: Bill Clinton paid a heavy political price for DADT. The Republicans never missed an opportunity to bash Clinton for his reckless policy of "letting gays into the military" -- it was one of their ginned-up central grievances against the Clinton administration, along with the ginned-up Whitewater controversy and the ginned-up White House Travel Office controversy. The bogeyman of Adam and Steve canoodling in the foxhole while America burned was dangled in front of the right-wing base like raw meat in front of a starving dog.

And it worked. The "gays in the military" issue helped rev up the wingnuts and was partly responsible for the GOP takeover of the House and Senate in 1994.

There is no question that the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is outdated and should be replaced. But to suggest that it was designed as a cynical anti-gay measure is a cynical misreading of history.


Thursday, May 21, 2009
 
All Dollhouse Things Considered

This week the networks unveiled their fall TV lineups to would-be advertisers. This is an annual ritual called the “Upfronts”, and in these days of declining ratings, desperation hangs in the air like the chilly breath of the tomb. Network entertainers are trotted out to amuse the advertisers, and the comedy is good-natured at these events, with the exception of Jimmy Kimmel’s stand up act, where he excoriated the assembled executives for being dumb enough to advertise on television in the first place, pointing out that 90% of the new shows would end up getting cancelled anyway.

One show that didn’t get cancelled was Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, and Fox was roundly criticized for allowing such an underperformer to limp into another season. Perhaps Fox wants to atone for its bungled handling of Whedon’s previous series Firefly, which was badly promoted, then prematurely dropped by the network, only to become a hit on DVD. But a more likely explanation is that Fox doesn’t have a show set to replace it.

To my mind, Firefly was a near-perfect TV series. By contrast Dollhouse is intriguing, but deeply flawed. The series concerns a secret compound called (you guessed it) the Dollhouse, where people – usually women, always good-looking – sign contracts to vacate their minds for a few years. Their memories are wiped clean and they are reprogrammed again and again with new personalities and skill sets to satisfy the whims of the Dollhouses’ upscale clientele. The main character is a woman named Caroline, who is signing five years of her life away – not because she wants to, but because she has no choice. Or more precisely, because she believes she has no choice. For all the gloss and glamour of the Dollhouse, we understand immediately that human trafficking is what’s happening here: Caroline is a desperate woman and she has a “choice” to be a Doll in the same way that people “choose” to become prostitutes or sell their spare kidneys. The idea of choice as a dramatic device is rarely used as deftly as Whedon uses it here.

In the pilot we meet Caroline and her handler / protector ( a noble ex-cop named Boyd who finds the whole idea of the Dollhouse distasteful), the CEO (Adele, the sort of venomous but high-class baddie who’d be right at home in a Hitchcock film) and the techno geek (Topher, providing comic relief along with the technobabble). We’re also introduced to dogged FBI agent Paul Ballard, who is obsessed with proving the existence of the Dollhouse. Ballard’s colleagues think he’s crazy – the Dollhouse is regarded as an urban legend. Each episode tracks Caroline (renamed Echo) as she becomes a different person – a hostage negotiator, a dominatrix, an outdoorswoman, etc, and follows Paul Ballard as he works his way closer to center of the mysterious organization that runs the place.

Again, this is interesting stuff, but it doesn’t completely work.

An obvious flaw in the premise – one that’s been pointed out elsewhere – is that there is little a Doll can do that a regular human being can't. Wealthy clients can find high-priced call girls who will do anything and everything the Dolls can do on the show; and even the less obvious uses for the Dolls – as made-to-order forensic specialists and assassins and spies – are skills that can be procured through conventional means too, for what I imagine would be a competitive price.

The concept of the Dollhouse, therefore, keeps banging its shins on a peculiar problem: what does the Dollhouse offer that you can’t get anywhere else? In the pilot episode, special agent Ballard argues that it’s the authenticity of experience: the Dolls really believe they are the people they are programmed to be and therefore provide a more satisfying fantasy for the client. But this seems like a pretty small hook upon which to hang an extremely expensive, difficult, secretive, labor-intensive and morally dubious enterprise – especially when you take into account the Dollhouse’s spectacular potential for failures, such as the maniacal Doll-gone-wrong named Alpha.

Now, it’s pretty clear that the real agenda of the Dollhouse has yet to be revealed, and I suspect there will be a sinister revelation that the Dollhouse is reprogramming people in the highest levels of government and industry. But such a revelation seems trivial compared to the real potential of the Dollhouse technology, which has been introduced rather off-handedly by Whedon, and which actually suggests that the Dollhouse itself is a rather tawdry sideline to what should be the main business.

About halfway through the first season one of Adele’s close friends dies, a friend who’d had her memories recorded at the Dollhouse months earlier. Because of this, Adele imprints the body of a Doll with the memories of the dead woman, essentially resurrecting her.

Up until this point, the Dolls were not necessarily seen as real, complete people, but rather composite sketches of people – a narrow band of memories and experiences that would allow them to complete a task over a few days or so. If more than one skill was needed (fishing + horsemanship + engine rebuilding) they could be so programmed. Not entirely convincing, but okay.

But suddenly we’re supposed to believe not only that complete human minds can be accurately downloaded onto a computer hard drive – as accurately as a copy of Microsoft Vista – and then transferred into any human body, but that Rossum, the company that runs the Dollhouse, didn’t immediately run out and patent this process. Because what you’re talking about is, effectively, immortality.

Something tells me you wouldn’t have trouble finding a market for that.

In the 1970s John Varley wrote quite a lot about a future in which you go to a special shop that periodically does backups to your mind and your memories, to be downloaded into a new cloned body if you should step in front of a bus (or get murdered, as happens in his short story The Phantom of Kansas). That's the world that Dollhouse implies, but oddly, it isn't the one we're being shown.


Thursday, May 14, 2009
 
Death Race 2009


Say you're a time traveler, and you're being hunted by other time travelers. You're looking for a place to hide -- or more precisely, a time to hide.

Take my advice, the ideal temporal hideout is 1979. No sensible time traveler would ever stop there.

1979 was a pretty miserable year, you can take it from me. There was disco and bad hairstyles and Three Mile Island and the hostage crisis and the Plymouth Horizon and a TV show called Supertrain and gas lines and double-digit inflation.

But the home computer industry was, if not burgeoning, at least interesting.

Home computers were just on the verge of being economically viable in those days, and many flash-in-the-pan companies made a bid for market dominance.

The list of companies that crashed and burned immediately is long. Osborne. Sinclair. Altair. Cromemco. Ohio Scientific. Texas Instruments. Quasar. Others – like Kaypro and Tandy and Commodore – hung in for a few years longer, twisting and turning to find a market niche, but eventually disappeared. Only a few –IBM and Apple and Compaq – stayed in it for the long haul.

As the big three American automakers, unwilling to change, plod miserably toward extinction, little upstart automakers are trying to be the first to bring green auto tech to the American consumer.

And what we’re seeing is a repeat of the computer industry of the 70s. Lots of little underfinanced companies bringing half-baked products to market. .

Let’s call Phoenix Motorworks exhibit A. The L.A.-based company had an innovative idea: don’t build the whole car from scratch. Rather, buy the “glider” – that is, the vehicle sans engine and drive train – from a Korean manufacturer, then add an all-electric engine and battery pack. Voila! Instant electric car.


Phoenix created two models: a midsized SUV and midsize pickup. They claimed that the vehicles had an effective range of 250 miles and could completely charge within a few hours. What’s not to like?

The Phoenix vehicles went on sale last fall as fleet-only trucks. But last month, the company declared bankruptcy:

Details are still very sketchy, but it appears that Phoenix Motorcars filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday, April 27th. Not surprisingly, the global economic downturn is cited as one of the main reasons for the filing, but another major contributing factor was a recent $5.3 million arbitration apparently won by former drivetrain supplier UQM.

Kids, here's a life lesson from your Uncle Mike: when your drivetrain supplier is suing you, things are bad.

I will admit that I was on the waiting list to purchase one of the plug-in pickups. But alas! It was not meant to be. Goodnight, sweet Phoenix Motorcars, and may a flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.

But perhaps one of the other new electric upstarts will hang in there and get their vehicles to a showroom near you -- or at the very least, force one of the big automakers to market their own electric alternative.

After all, what do you think spurred IBM to create their own PC?


Sunday, May 10, 2009
 
Let's Not Get Carried Away, Comrades
A new "Star Trek" movie came out this weekend, so that means every political blogger on Earth must comment on the Federation's economic system. Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy declares that the Federation is a socialist state, but apparently doesn't believe that the presence of replicators -- those 3D printers of the future that can produce anything --- would be sufficient to make it happen. Nope, you can't have an educated, wealthy populace without a market economy:

If resources are completely unlimited, the argument goes, it doesn't matter if they are used inefficiently. But .... there is in fact economic scarcity in the Star Trek universe, because not everything can be replicated (e.g. - power sources for starships and replicators themselves). Moreover, the Federation and other nations in that universe wage war over the control of planets and other assets, which implies that they can't be replicated either. It's also worth noting that replicators seem to be a government monopoly in the Federation, at least on Earth; I don't think we ever see a private replicator owned by a human Federation citizen. That has some troubling implications of its own.

There are a lot of assumptions here. And absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Look, this is "Star Trek", it concerns itself with an outer-space navy. You're not going to see lots of details about civilian life in the 23rd century.

As to replicators: if a device went on the market tomorrow that could turn a box of gravel into a laptop computer or a gold watch or a three-course dinner, and you didn't think it would completely upend our entire economic system, I'd say hold out your arms so that I can get the straightjacket on you, there's a good fellow.

Somin goes on to complain that there is no money in the Star Trek universe (and I agree that this is unrealistic even in a replicator-based economy, since money is a yardstick for measuring the value of human labor, not just consumer goods). But then comes an interesting generalization:

[W]e never see any large privately owned enterprises in any of the Star Trek series set after the founding of the Federation. We never hear such of such enterprises being mentioned, or see their brand names on any goods.

Again, absence of evidence and all that. But more importantly, expecting that the world two hundred years from now will look the same as it does now -- well, it doesn't make sense. We don't really know anything about what the future is going to be like except that it's going to be different -- radically different -- than it is now.


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