Friday, July 24, 2009

Musical Interlude: Let's Do The Time Warp Again

I was a kid when The Rocky Horror Picture Show was out in first run. It would be adulthood before I'd finally catch it at any of a number of midnight movie locations around Southern California. Before I would have seen the movie for the first time, I would have seen the video above repeatedly (there was this imitation MTV knockoff show on a UHF station in the Los Angeles area that was actually quite good). The song captures the essence of the early 1970s glam rock era as well as any. Of course seeing a video is a much different experience from catching the film itself, and catching the film in a theater (it's a midnight movie perennial for over three decades at this point) is a much different experience from simply watching it on VHS (back in the day) or DVD. Although there is quite a bit to the film that one can only appreciate with some peace and quiet, there is nothing like being in a theater with a mob of hardcore fans who have their own call-and-response thing going on throughout the movie. Some of the audience participation might come across a bit crude for most tastes, but there is a great deal of pop culture knowledge often revealed (some relatively common, sometimes some downright obscure references get shouted out). For an aging pop culture junkie like me, such situations are almost pure heaven.

Word to the wise - if you go to a midnight movie showing you'll likely be finding grains of rice in your clothing for days to come (it's been a few years, but I somehow doubt the tradition of throwing rice at the screen during the wedding scene has been abandoned - even if the venue attempts to ban such practices). Also, it's a good idea to go in with an open mind, as an old friend once told me. The basic theme of the film (besides poking some gentle fun at those old B-movie sci-fi and horror flicks of yesteryear) was one of portraying the challenging the Victorian-era sexual hangups that still characterized UK and US cultures in the 1970s. Each of the main characters deals with confronting those hangups with varying degrees of success as the film progresses. I've always wanted to catch the theatrical version (known simply as The Rocky Horror Show) to get a sense of how it and the film compare.

Two different Americas exist

Well, at least two, as delagar astutely notes. The divide falls along racial and socioeconomic class lines.

Who the hell are these people?

That's the question The Gawker asks about the Birthers (h/t Media Matters). The article basically attempts to locate the origins of this particular urban legend (possibly Andy Martin or Jerome Corsi who both have long histories as conspiracy nuts), what its adherents believe (which given the convoluted nature of this particular urban legend takes some effort), and who keeps legitimizing these loonies (Lou Dobbs is certainly one of the culprits, but so too Camile Paglia, Liz Cheney, Glenn Beck, at one point the blog No Quarter, ad nauseum).

Thursday, July 23, 2009


H/t ADS.

Not cool

If you're going to try to persuade me to continue to support the status quo for US health care (which you might have already gathered I find entirely unacceptable), this is not the way to do it:
On Sunday night, Dr. David McKalip forwarded to fellow members of a Google listserv affiliated with the Tea Party movement the image below. Above it, he wrote: "Funny stuff."

Now, Tea Party activists trafficking in racist imagery are pretty much dog bites man. But McKalip isn't just some random winger. He's a Florida neurosurgeon, who serves as a member of the American Medical Association's House of Delegates.

He's also an energetic conservative opponent of health-care reform. McKalip founded the anti-reform group Doctors For Patient Freedom, as well as what seems to be a now defunct group called Cut Taxes Now. Last month he joined GOP congressmen Tom Price and Phil Gingrey, among others, for a virtual town hall to warn about the coming "government takeover of medicine." And in a recent anti-reform op-ed published in the St. Petersburg Times, McKalip wrote that "Congress wants to create larger, government-funded programs for health care and more bureaucracy that ration care and impose cookbook medicine."

Asked about the email in a brief phone interview with TPMmuckraker, McKalip said he believes that by depicting the president as an African witch doctor, the "artist" who created the image "was expressing concerns that the health-care proposals [made by President Obama] would make the quality of medical care worse in our country." McKalip said he didn't know who created it.

Racist imagery is something that will only turn me off to your message. If you have to play the racist card, it's probably because you don't have a coherent message to begin with. As for Obama's message last night, within the ideological confines that characterize US politics, I'll have to say that his health care message is not bad at all. Let's just say that if a public choice option becomes available, my family is being put on that pronto (especially since I'm looking at no payraise this year, and an increased bite taken out of my paycheck when health insurance deductions increase in January). There aren't many areas in which I think well of Obama or the Dems, but healthcare is potentially one of them.

Apparently, since a refresher course is needed, let's look at the healthcare situation in the US as it currently stands (in other words, the status quo). I've mentioned before that the US is a multivariate outlier when it comes to healthcare costs and quality of life indexes. It's not so much that our life expectancies are much worse than elsewhere on the planet, but rather are extremely low compared to what they should be given the amount we spend on healthcare (often to the point of bankruptcy). To put it in perspective, if you lived in Portugal, you would have the same life expectancy as someone living in the US at about one third the cost in health care expenses. When we look at other quality of life indexes, it becomes readily apparent that those of us living in the US have fallen way behind other industrialized nations, and are instead quite comparable to what would be found in much of third world. There's even reason to believe that the public sector seems to have its act together regarding to health insurance to a degree not even fathomable to the private sector. What I gathered was that what Obama is offering would leave us with the things we like about our healthcare, but would eliminate a lot of the waste and bureaucratic red tape (I realize that the privatize or perish crowd has a hard time swallowing the notion that private health insurance tends to be rife with Byzantine bureaucracies). I'd rather take a gamble on that than on continue to believe that somehow the current status quo will magically correct itself (if history is any indicator, I think we already know what to predict with regard to the current status quo system). This probably will not be my ideal, but it's a start.

Musical Interlude:

Exposure by Peter Gabriel, from the second solo album from 1978. The combination of that bass line (courtesy Tony Levin), the drums that seem to have a slight echo, and those other-worldly sounds Robert Fripp could bring out of a guitar hit it just right. The playing is tight, and there is more than a hint of menace in the composition and in the vocals - basically this is my idea of a good rock tune. I would first discover Peter Gabriel's music in 1980 when "Games Without Frontiers" would get a ton of airplay on the radio.

The version of Exposure that appeared on Robert Fripp's album, Exposure, is also well worth checking out (the promotional video for Fripp's version of the tune is suitably weird).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

This should be a wakeup call

Approximately one in six US adults have no health insurance.

I'll stick to paperbacks, thank you

I don't trust Amazon's Kindle one bit. Let's just say that given my limited funds, when I buy a book I want to know that it won't be deleted at the whim of someone else.

Ben Ratliff in Conversation with Bennie Maupin

Musical Interlude:

Via All Sides Now (h/t BLCKDGRD). Here's the original recording by Wire from their first album Pink Flag.

Lyrics (for the curious):

You're a waste of space
No natural grace
You're so bloody thin
You don't even begin

To interest me, not even curiosity
It's not animosity, it's just you don't interest me

You're an energy void
A black hole to avoid
No style no heart
You don't even start

A friend of mine used to say that a punk record without a lyric sheet was like sex without the orgasm - what's the point? We might extend that to post-punk as well. Actually, for those curious as to what the fuss was all about with regard to post-punk, any of Wire's 1970s recordings would be worth a listen (or hopefully more). Those cats probably didn't sell tons of records in their heyday, but they sure managed to influence a fair number of post-punk and alt-rock acts (including The Minutemen and later fIREHOSE). A lot of Wire's songs were short, sometimes almost haiku-like in their brevity and their openness to interpretation. As a sidebar, when I was learning the ropes as a poet/haiku writer, I drew upon Wire's early work for inspiration, in particular their ethos - "when we ran out of words, we stopped."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Phrase of the day

"slouching toward tyranny"

Of all the stupid...

Of all the stupid "reasons" to oppose a prospective surgeon general: she looks "too fat." How about focus on something of substance, such as her qualifications? Is that really too much to ask?

Time for some haiku

By yours truly:
beyond the plain’s horizon
loom unforeseen cliffs
Written a couple days ago.

Willful Ignorance: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

H/t David Weigel of The Washington Independent. The birthers have been at it for over a year, and although thoroughly discredited, continue on like any other conspiracy theorists.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Video of first moon landing

h/t Calculated Risk (this was the video of the day for that blog.

Half the fun of this video is simply reading the comments - conspiracy theorists tend to amuse me, and those who are convinced that the moon landing was a hoax especially so.

Musical Interlude: Counterpoint Edition

Gil Scott-Heron: "Whitey On the Moon"

Musical Interlude

The Police - Walking On The Moon: Video from

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A harbinger

One consequence of continuing to bomb a nation back into the stone age is you end up with a lot of displaced people. Many will remain internally displaced - that is they'll languish in refugee camps or merely drift with in the borders. Others (usually those with some remaining income at hand) will manage to flee in large numbers to what they hope will be a less hostile environment, where they will languish in makeshift encampments. Thus we have this story:

Recently, one Afghan journalist wrote: "there are three types of people in Afghanistan today: al-Qaida (the fighters), al-faida (the enriched) and al-gaida (the fucked)." For much of Afghanistan's middle class, if they didn't want to be in the latter category their only choice this last eight years and more was to flee the country. Poor people can't even afford to do that.

It's something there's been very little media attention given to, but refugees from the occupation of Afghanistan have become a major problem for some European nations. Last weekend, Greece sent in police and bulldozers to clear one camp in the western port city of Patras. It's inhabitants, up to 1,800 of them living in carboard shanties, had paid several thousand dollars each to people smugglers to leave Afghanistan and get that far.

Most of the immigrants arriving illegally in Greece do not plan to stay there. Most had hoped to get to Italy, with France and Britain being favored onward destinations. With the destruction of the Patras camp and tighter security against people-smuggling at the port there, more are now likely to head north for the land border with Bulgaria or Macedonia.

Currently Britain is one of the most favored destinations...Some 1,500 currently live in shanty camps around Calais much like the one at Patras. They wash their clothes and bathe in the sea, use their surroundings for toilets and eat at local soup kitchens. Knife fights between different ethnic groups are common.

Remember, these are Afghanistan's middle class, the educated and relatively well off that the U.S. led Coalition are hoping will do the heavy lifting of reconstruction, good governance, leading Afghan security forces and all the rest it will take to make the "hold" and "build" parts of "clear, hold and build" work. But they're not there, they have fled by their hundreds of thousands according to European counts. So how's that supposed to work, then?

The story of displacement and social death of those residing (or formerly residing) in Afghanistan (or the now more fashionable Af/Pak label) is one that has received very little attention so far.

Yeah, climate contrarianism is getting a bit old

I won't disagree with Nate on that note. Nate's a statistical wonk, which is a vice I share to an extent. What makes global warming so damn difficult to discuss is the tremendous amount of variability present in the data, whether we think in terms of long-term global trends or even if we think about local day-to-day temperature fluctuations. A couple of coolish summer days in Minneapolis really wouldn't be terribly unusual, and as Nate shows, just looking at that locality the last month has been a strikingly average month for that particular metropolitan area. Of course it is crucial to keep in mind that whatever happens at a particular locality tells us little or nothing about what is going on globally. Just to give you an idea, here's a graph provided by NOAA of temperature anomalies for June of this year (h/t to clif):

There are a few islands of blue amidst a sea of red - a mildly poetic way of saying that globally June was warmer than usual. Keep in mind that the graph merely portrays one month. Here's another that I found late last month that gives us an idea of the long-term global trend:

As I noted at the time:
Image found at Paul Krugman's blog. Krugman goes on to say:
...temperature is a noisy time series, so if you pick and choose your dates over a short time span you can usually make whatever case you want. That’s why you need to look at longer trends and do some statistical analysis.


What this tells me is that annual temperature is indeed noisy: there have been many large fluctuations, indeed much larger than the up-and-down in the last decade or so. But the direction of change is unmistakable if you take the longer view. The fitted line in the figure is a 3rd-degree polynomial, but any sort of smoothing would tell you that there is a massive upward trend.

Of course, trend-spotting is no substitute for causal modeling; and the models are getting truly scary in their implications.
John Cole also looks a bit at the "climate contrarians" who've been naysaying for too damned long.

In particular, I thought the Krugman post was useful in reminding readers that in order to understand what is happening with the planet's climate, one is required to search for long-term trends using what is rather noisy data (that is, data in which there is a great deal of variability). In the case of global warming, it appears that the signal, even with all the noise, is coming in crystal clear.
Merely convenience sampling a few days-worth of temperatures in one location (or perhaps a year or two globally) will lead one to make whatever sort of inference one might want to draw, but the inference is unlikely to be worth much. What I think happens with the climate contrarians is that they capitalize (in some cases) or fall victim to (in other cases) fairly normal cognitive biases. One of those biases falls under the name "availability heuristic" - we tend to overestimate the probability of occurrences that are most easily recalled. The most recent day's weather will be more available to conscious awareness than what might have happened a few days, weeks, or years earlier; and of course extremes will get remembered more easily than events that are more or less normal. For someone in the upper Midwest, summer temperatures that apparently are too cool for summer skinny-dipping in Lake Michigan would be very salient and will be given more weight than deserved. Then, there is the tendency for we humans in everyday life to search only for data that confirm our particular pet hypotheses rather than search for data that might debunk our particular pet hypotheses. We do a very incomplete scan of the available data, and having found a few data points we stop searching. Gordon Allport once remarked that from a thimble full of data, we make inferences that are as large as a tub (I'm paraphrasing his quote). Clearly this is a bias that can lead to errors. On top of that all is simply that our own particular sets of beliefs are so active (even if we're not aware of it; a phenomenon that in social cognition gets referred to as chronic accessibility) that they shape our perceptions of the present and distort our memories of the past. Hence, for a climate contrarian, the end result will be an exceptional awareness of any unusually cool weather in their locality, as well as an exaggerated tendency to recall unusually cool weather in the recent and not-so-recent past.

The problem with these particular biases in thinking is that they hinder accurate perception and judgment. When dealing with something as complex as the global climate, it is crucial to use tools that will allow us to get past our own particular cognitive limitations - the aforementioned biases and our limitations in synthesizing vast amounts of data. This is where statistical modeling along with accurate descriptive statistical data come in. These tools enable us to get past our own limitations and see more clearly what would have otherwise gone undetected.

Although I am reasonably convinced that the overall trend is toward a warmer planet, there are going to be variations on how locations are affected, and of course there will be cold days and hot days, as well as relatively cold years and relatively hot years. Keep in mind that all the variation is noise - never lose sight of the signal.