Archive for December, 2009

30
Dec
09

media games

Here is a great example of the pettiness and dishonesty of mainstream media.

There are allegations that some of the terrorists that the Christmas day bomber associated with are based in Yemen, and that some of these terrorists were released from Guantanamo Bay by Bush.

So, of course Fox News runs a story about how a republican congressman is in the midst of a letter writing campaign to Obama asking him not to release any more detainees from Guantanamo. In a brilliant and completely cynical use of media magic, an action by a past president is transformed into a veiled critique against the current one.

The real travesty is that no one bothers to defend Bush’s decision on it’s original merits. When GTMO was operating, some people never stopped calling for the release or transfer of prisoners, and the Bush administration itself was actually committed to releasing and transferring detainees, but found significant roadblocks to doing so. Nonetheless, the process of trying to find out who does and does not belong at GTMO is a noble one, and mistakes are bound to be made in both directions (mistakenly letting people go or wrongly holding them when they’re innocent), but of course Fox News could never make an argument like that; it’s much easier just to hide behind media stage tricks.

(PS: a bunch of liberal news programs do this all time as well. I’m thinking of Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann. It’s just that when I woke up this morning, I saw this Fox News program, so I’m complaining about them).

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26
Dec
09

the most competitive sport

This paper claims that baseball and soccer are the most competitive sports while basketball and football are the least competitive.

The methodology of this paper looked at regular season games and compares the distribution of teams according to their record with a distribution that would indicate parity. Not sure what to make of this methodology, but it flies in the face of what I would have thought. For example,  I always thought that the NFL was a very competitive sporting league, and so I’m not sure why this is not reflected in this study.

23
Dec
09

What is Christmas these days?

Some people (mainly economists) criticize the American interpretation of Christmas on two grounds.

1. Gift giving is inefficient because other people don’t know what you want better than you do. “Grandma got me a onesie again” syndrome.

2. The crunch to stock stores with excessive inventory raises shipping and labor costs at retail outlets. If, as a society, we spread our gift giving over the whole year we wouldn’t incur these costs.

I think 1 is just straight wrong, because it ignores the happiness people get from giving gifts. You might not like the onesie from Grandma, but she might have really liked giving it to you. This is partially why the etiquette of gift giving includes accepting a gift whatever it is; if you say something, you will make the giver feel bad and their welfare is just important as yours.

2 on the other hand is probably right, but I think it’s outweighed, by what I call the network effect of Christmas, which I think has wide implications for how we understand Christmas.

Primarily, I think that Christmas solves a coordination problem. In our busy society, it’s hard for people to do things with other people. If you have 5 friends, how likely is it that they are all free at once, unless it’s during Christmas-time, when many people receive fairly generous vacations or at least fly to their home town for time with family and friends. Though Christmas started out as a religious holiday/celebration, I think it has become, along with its close cousin New Year’s, a de facto break time for our society.

This is why concentrated gift giving is an acceptable cost to a society-wide vacation. We have to all get together at once, and this means gift giving just comes along as a side effect or an unavoidable consequence of the happiness that this time of year brings.

I think this also sheds light on the controversy of whether its acceptable to say “merry Christmas” to someone without knowing what religion they are. In most cases, when I say “merry Christmas” I’m not intending anything religious. What I’m trying to communicate is something like “happy society-wide vacation in which everyone stops working at once to relax.” In other ords, I think Christmas in no longer primarily religious and has become primarily cultural. In some cases, its surely wrong to wish a Jew or a Muslim a merry Christmas as a way of making them feel excluded or uncomfortable, but in most cases, Christmas wishes are not interpreted as a specifically religious greeting.

Critics of Christmas have noted this for years, decrying its shallow commercialization. These critics were right to point out Christmas’s new secular meaning, but wrong to say that its new function was commercial. Rather, Christmas is the solution to a coordination problem in a busy society.

22
Dec
09

Achievement

What is achievement, and why does it have any value for us as humans? This is a question that I think has a long and interesting answer. I think an achievement has something to do with performing an action that others cannot or will not perform in a way that demonstrates specifically human capacities. But it’s  more complicated than that. Some things are achievements in relative terms. When a paraplegic completes a 5 mile race in a wheelchair, that’s an accomplishment. Hell, that’s an accomplishment for a person with two working legs, but the point is that achievement is relative to what one can physically accomplish. Other types of achievements are specific to a certain set of rules. A three point shot at the buzzer to win the championship is only an accomplishment if one takes the shot, in bounds, during the specified time limit, etc. etc. Climbing Everest only counts as an achievement if one does it without the aid of a helicopter, without too many sherpas, etc. etc.

I think morality functions this way for our lives in general. A life well lived is an accomplishment, and part of what makes a life a triumph or a victory is that it was lived in accordance with certain rules. Someone who doesn’t take into account the needs of others or who lies, cheats, etc. invalidates the achievement that is the person’s life, just as the person who sinks a three pointer at the buzzer but pushes his defender out of the way without the refs seeing. Though the shot might fall, it is no achievement, because it was not done in accordance with the rules that govern that achievement. Steroid use is another example.

21
Dec
09

the Yo-Yo (both high and low)

Learning all sorts of interesting stuff from this fighter pilot textbook.

Take this gem, about a maneuver called the yo-yo, which I mistakenly thought was named for the children’s toy: “The Yo-Yo is very difficult to explain. It was first perfected by the well-known Chinese fighter pilot Yo-Yo Noritake. He also found it difficult to explain, being quite devoid of English.”

Well known fighter pilot? Yo-Yo Noritake? Never heard of him.

20
Dec
09

Boston is awful, but let’s be balanced

Here is a long rant about why Boston is awful. I approve of many of the comments in this rant. For example, this angry person focuses on Boston’s lack of infrastructure. Right on.

My point is that just like in politics, criticism becomes warped and counterproductive when it becomes demonization. For example, this author says that people in Massachusetts are rude. This is the stereotype for sure, but many of the Boston people I have met are extremely friendly and have very large hearts. Also, these people are tough as nails. Like I said before, their city does nothing to help them, but they keep on living nonetheless. Now the accent, I do find annoying, but really, how can one, in good faith, complain about it? Everywhere has a stupid accent and its purely arbitrary which ones we find pleasing or gut-wrenching. The accent, as much as I dislike it, can’t be a matter of fair criticism.

Today though, my displeasure with Boston stems from the weather. The weather was great as I toiled away on papers and finals, and then on the very day that I want to go to a real city, Dallas, it snows out of control and basically paralyzes this region of the country. Boston is so bad that it even traps me here when it knows I would rather be somewhere else. Thanks Boston.

20
Dec
09

Scrubs

I’ve been watching a lot of scrubs lately, mainly because I finished all my coursework for the semester. I know it’s an old show, but here’s my main points.

1. Season one was very good. It was a “pure” season. All the main intrigues of the show are laid out, and everything is fresh. Specifically, the show really exposed the way that doctors have to adapt to their constant contact with death.

2. From there, things get bad in a hurry. First, a bunch of bureaucratic changes are envisioned to keep the show’s essential dynamic the same. All the interns become residents, but Dr. Cox moves up in seniority so he’s still the boss. He still yells at JD, yada yada yada (Seinfeld = great show) and acts as his tough-love mentor. Also, the show becomes really preachy and moralistic. Everything in the whole show becomes a metaphor for supporting your friends, but worst of all, the lesson is ALWAYS the same, which is: swallow your pride and apologize so that your oversensitive friends keep being your oversensitive friends.

3. The Todd is really the only consistently good character. The funny thing though is that he’s not that good in the first season. Rather, he grows in power. I love how he runs in the room anytime he hears anything remotely sexual, especially involving a lesbian encounter.