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Today In the Noble Ideals of Amateurism

[ 90 ] October 23, 2014 |

But I’m sure this is a total outlier:

For 18 years, thousands of students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took classes with no assigned reading or problem sets, with no weekly meetings, and with no faculty member involved. These classes had just one requirement: a final paper that no one ever read.

The academic fraud in the university’s African-American studies department was first revealed three years ago. But a new investigation shows that the fake classes were even more common than previously thought, and that athletes in particular benefited from the classes, in some cases at the behest of their academic counselors. Previous investigations had found no ties to campus athletics.

On campus, the fake classes, which at least 3,100 students took, were hardly a secret. They were particularly popular with athletes, who made up about half of enrollments. Nearly a quarter of students who took the classes were football and basketball players. And the classes made a difference: good grades that students didn’t have to work for made more than 80 eligible to graduate who otherwise would have flunked out.

In the most crucial finding, no player was paid $10 for an autograph, so it’s a minor scandal in the end.

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Ever wondered how horror films work?

[ 5 ] October 23, 2014 |

For those of you who enjoy my breakdown of films — and in the spirit of Halloween — I’m going to link to this Vox article that I had no input into the choice of films selected or the techniques discussed.

In all seriousness, it was supposed to be a collaboration, but events intervened — so Todd had to settle for doing a fantastic job writing it up on his own.

As for my next AV Club column, it’s been pushed back a bit so it can take part in the site’s “Horror Week” theme. It’ll cover some of the same territory as the Vox article, but will be about Ringu.

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Thai Braised Chicken

[ 17 ] October 23, 2014 |

Last night I needed to use up some chicken thighs and legs I had thawed. I was tired of the same crap I usually make and was really crazing some Asian flavors…so I came up with this:

Thai Braised Chicken

  • 6-8 pieces dark meat, bone-in chicken (Skin chicken if you are averse to having a fattier, richer sauce. Skin will not get crackly crisp, but will not be soggy gross, either.)
  • 2 bell peppers, sliced thinly
  • 1 onion, sliced thinly
  • I can coconut milk
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 2 heaping tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1-2 tablespoons Thai red curry paste (Adjust for your heat tolerance; I use a heaping 1 1/2)
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. yellow Indian curry powder
  • lime wedges and chopped cilantro, for serving
  • hot, cooked rice
  1. Preheat oven to 325.
  2. In a bowl combine coconut milk, sugar, fish sauce, curry mixes, and lime juice
  3. In a large dutch oven, heat some oil ’til almost smoking. Salt and pepper chicken pieces, brown them, then remove them from the pan and set aside.
  4. Season (lightly!) the veggies then sauté them in the oil/fat for a minute or two.
  5. Pour in the coconut milk/curry sauce, stirring to mix everything.
  6. Nestle the chicken pieces in the sauce (taking care to keep skin above braising liquid) and put the (lid-off!) dutch oven in the oven. Braise for 1 1/2 – 2 hours, until chicken is almost falling off the bone and veggies are tender.
  7. Serve over rice with lime wedges (a squeeze of lime here is wonderful) and chopped cilantro.

Also, check out these sweet dance moves. 


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[ 24 ] October 23, 2014 |
Allied tanker torpedoed.jpg

“Allied tanker torpedoed” by U.S. Navy (photo 80-G-43376) Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

My latest at the National Interest takes a look at military failure:

In this article, I concentrate on specific operational and strategic decisions, leaving aside broader, grand-strategic judgments that may have led the United States into ill-considered conflicts. The United States may well have erred politically in engaging in the War of 1812, World War I, the Vietnam War and Operation Iraqi Freedom, but here I consider how specific failures worsened America’s military and strategic position.

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In Fairness, There Was Nothing About Drug Running at the Mena Airport

[ 166 ] October 22, 2014 |

I am not particularly thrilled about the prospect of a noncompetitive Democratic primary with Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominee.  An article that explained why and how a candidate could be preferable would be useful.  Alas, Doug Henwood’s Harper‘s cover story is not that article.  Some of the problems are conveyed even in the intro that isn’t behind the paywall:

“How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out for you?” Sarah Palin asked American voters in a taunting 2010 speech. The answer: Not so well. We avoided a full-blown depression, but the job market remains deeply sick, and it’s become quite mainstream to talk about the U.S. economy having fallen into structural stagnation (though the rich are thriving). Barack Obama has, if anything, seemed more secretive than George W. Bush. He kills alleged terrorists whom his predecessor would merely have tortured. The climate crisis gets worse, and the political capacity even to talk about it, much less do anything about it, is completely absent.

Of the last two assertions, the first (implying that while Bush supported torture he opposed targeted killings) is risible. The argument that nothing has been done about climate change during the Obama administration is just demonstrably false. (Even Thomas Frank concedes that Obama has a good record on the environment, fer Chrissakes.) The claim about secrecy is, I will grant, a judgment call on a small-potatoes issue. And the first talks about structural trends divorced from policy changes and without any explanation of what more Obama could have done about unemployment. (And if you think that a large stimulus was just inevitable, cf. most of Europe.)

As the use of Dick Morris’s “expertise” suggests, things don’t get much better when things get to Clinton. For example:

While it was certainly not the diabolical conspiracy Republicans made it out to be during the fevered days of the Clinton impeachment, it was not nothing.

No, it really was, at least insofar as the Clintons were concerned. Gene Lyons explains:

Basically, the author has performed a simple trick: putting leftward spin on GOP talking points from the 1990s. Because everybody’s either forgotten the details or never knew them, it’s possible to make long discredited charges of corruption against both Clintons sound plausible again.

Whitewater, Henwood assures readers, definitely “was not nothing.”

What it may have been, however, he appears to have no clue. The most basic facts elude him. No, the late Jim McDougal’s doomed Madison Guaranty savings and loan did not finance the Clintons’ real estate investment. They were never “investors in McDougal’s [other] schemes.”

Maybe Henwood would better understand the Clintons’ surprising “escape from the Whitewater morass” if he grasped that they were basically the victims, not the perps.

Here’s how Kenneth Starr’s prosecutor Ray Jahn put it in his closing argument at poor, mentally ill Jim McDougal’s trial:

“Why isn’t the President of the United States on trial?…Because he didn’t set up any phony corporations to get employees to sign for loans that were basically worthless…The president didn’t backdate any leases. He didn’t backdate any documents. He didn’t come up with any phony reasons not to repay the property. He didn’t lie to any examiners. He didn’t lie to any investors.”

A lot of the rest of the analysis isn’t much better. He derides her legislative record, arguing that “of all her senatorial accomplishments, “the [Iraq War vote] arguably had the biggest impact. The rest were the legislative equivalent of being against breast cancer.” Certainly, Clinton deserves a great deal of criticism for supporting the Iraq War, but since this vote almost certainly cost her the Democratic nomination it’s not exactly news. But it’s also true that this was pretty much the only “impact” the vote had — the war was happening however she voted. It’s fair game because it reflects a serious error in judgment, but its causal impact was on the war happening was nil.

The bigger problem, though, is criticizing her for not getting major legislation passed. (This deeply odd way of evaluating a senator’s record is reflected in his language: “Hillary passed a total of twenty bills during her first five years in the Senate.” Individual senators don’t “pass” anything.) The rather obvious problem here is that the entirety of her Senate tenure happened with George W. Bush in the White House, and 6 of those were with a Republican Congress. Of course the only legislation she supported that passed was trivial symbolic stuff. This really takes Green Lanternism to a whole other level; apparently, if Hillary Clinton was a good senator a Republican Congress and Republican president would have passed transformative progressive legislation. That seems plausible!

So while there’s a good Clinton critique waiting to be written, this ain’t it.

…Tom Till in comments:

There are plenty of issues where Hillary Clinton deserves close, even withering scrutiny and where reasonable people can and should debate. The grotesque and preposterous sham known as Whitewater is not one of them. That a number of prominent reporters, editorialists, members of the judiciary, and various elected politicians, operatives, lobbyists, committee staffers, and wingnut bottom-feeders conspired to hatch it, prolong it (in many instances blatantly disregarding the law or at least legal ethics), and infect the political bloodstream with it to such a degree that it ultimately resulted in a president’s impeachment is, well, neither forgivable nor forgettable.

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Urban Raccoons

[ 77 ] October 22, 2014 |

Evidently, raccoons in the city are smarter than rural raccoons because the city teaches them so much, primarily how to get at food.

Personally, I fear they will ally with the monkeys and robots to enslave us.

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“A Happy Blend of the East and the West”

[ 16 ] October 22, 2014 |

Because of course you want to watch tourist films from 1976 promoting Bombay, now Mumbai.

Need to get that song on itunes.


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The New Gilded Age

[ 21 ] October 22, 2014 |

And we keep marching on into the New Gilded Age:

Once upon a time, the American economy worked for everybody, and even the middle class got richer. But this story has only been a fairy tale for almost 30 years now. The new, harsh reality is that the bottom 90 percent of households are poorer today than they were in 1987.

This is actually a much more dramatic statement than it sounds. While the Federal Reserve has already told us that the median households is worth less now than it was in 1989 — that’s the household right in the middle — it turns out that everybody but the richest 10 percent of Americans are worst off. That includes the poor, the entire middle class, and even what we would consider much of the upper class.

It’s been a lost 25 years for the bottom 90 percent, but a lost 15 for the next 9 percent, too. That’s right: altogether, the bottom 99 percent are worth less today than they were in 1998.

But this isn’t a story about the top 1 percent running away from everybody else. It’s a story about the top 0.1 — scratch that, the top 0.01 percent — doing so. You can see that in the chart below, again based on data from Saez and Zucman, of each group’s share of US wealth. Indeed, since 1980, the top 0.01 percent’s piece of the wealth pie has increased by 8.6 percentage points, while the next 0.09 percent’s has done so by 5.4. The bottom 99 percent, meanwhile, have seen their wealth share fall an astonishing 18 percentage points.

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Apparently, An Oxford Education Isn’t What It Used To Be

[ 105 ] October 22, 2014 |

Charles C.W. Cooke is very upset that people who oppose antidiscrimation laws are compared to people who oppose antidiscrimination laws:

In this manner, too, have we come to discuss the ever-diminishing scope of private property rights, our debates centering nowadays not on whether individuals should have a general right to decide whom they will serve, but on why anybody would be asking these questions in the first instance. Think you should be able to decide who comes into your bar? Drop the act, Bubba, you must be in the Klan.

Let’s leave aside the silly assumption that businesses who want to be exempt from civil rights laws are all “individuals.” Do civil rights statutes violate longstanding “rights” of public accommodations to exclude customers for any reason of their choosing? Well, I have someone with some expertise with the subject right here, and:

[I]f an inn-keeper, or other victualler, hangs out a sign and opens his house for travelers, it is an implied engagement to entertain all persons who travel that way; and upon this universal assumpsit an action on the case will lie against him for damages, if he without good reason refuses to admit a traveler.

–Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England

This common law tradition, requiring public accommodations to serve customers with the ability to pay on equal terms, was carried over to the United States. Civil rights laws applying to public accommodations do not represent a dimunition of traditional rights; they represent a statutory recognition of long-standing common law rights. The Jim Crow “general right [of businesses open to the general public] to decide whom they will serve” arrangement Cooke prefers is the anomaly in the Anglo-American legal tradition, not civil rights laws. Generally, people who advocate for policies designed to advance segregationist policy preferences against well-established rights should not be surprised when they’re likened to segregationists.

[Via Edroso.]

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Honestly, I wouldn’t even know what one looked like

[ 86 ] October 22, 2014 |

COP: Have you noticed anything unusual this morning?

SEK: Not to my knowledge.

COP: Nothing at all? Not even a…suspicious dump truck?

SEK: A suspicious dump truck? I’ve seen a lot of dump trucks across the street, at the construction site, but I don’t know what would make one suspicious.

COP: You know, like one that didn’t look like it…belonged with the other dump trucks.

SEK: Sorry, they look like a happy little dump truck family to me.

COP: I understand. Just keep your eyes peeled, and call me if you see anything suspicious.

SEK: Will do.

UPDATE: Someone did come in and steal all the dump trucks. Video here. Looks like someone will finally earn his Boy Detective merit badge…

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Oh! Canada

[ 30 ] October 22, 2014 |

The scope of the attack remains unclear, but this is evidently a frightening development.

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The Fortress of Solitude

[ 7 ] October 22, 2014 |

Hi all!  You may remember me from my guest blogging stint this summer. I’m supposed to be a new permanent blogger for LGM but I have been terribly remiss.  But I saw The Fortress of Solitude, a new musical at The Public theater based on the Jonathan Lethem novel, and I had so many swirling thoughts about it I knew they must become a blog post.  Hopefully I will get my act together to write more blog posts, perhaps about non-theatrical topics. Anyway:

The Fortress of Solitude is the story of the friendship of Dylan, a white boy in pre-gentrification Brooklyn, who after being abandoned by his mother, befriends Mingus Rude, son of Barrett Rude, Jr., a washed-up soul singer. To the credit of composer/lyricist Michael Friedman and bookwriter Itamar Moses the show is a continuously entertaining two-and-a-half hours. I appreciated their effort to write a musical motivated by character and story and rooted in time and place. During the first act, I both enjoyed and was bemused by its curiously slow, contemplative energy, which somehow persisted even during high-energy dance sequences. I think it managed this strange effect through its music. In a gesture toward the way Dylan is said to live his life trying to make meaning out of fragments of music (and yes, unfortunately, this show does sometimes get just that ponderous), the songs cycle rapidly through styles, and numbers sample and reincorporate each other. Of course it’s normal in a musical to hear songs reprised and refrains repeated, but it’s notably aggressive in this score. The effect is somewhat dissonant, resisting conventional satisfaction, never taking the audience to an emotional high, but instead propelling us through a wall of sound.

Notable exceptions are sung by Kevin Mambo, who plays Barrett Rude, Jr. with glowering, broken ferocity.  He and his fictional quartet, The Subtle Distinctions, get the most powerful, coherent music. “Who’s Calling Now?” is plausibly ruthless as a rage/despair anthem in the same emotional genre as “A Change Is Gonna Come.” It’s also a pleasure to watch André de Shields play Barrett Rude, Sr., with gleeful, devilish pomposity. He appears singing his own name with a hilariously sustained note and every time he’s on stage he struts like he’s skipping on the inside. Kyle Beltran as Mingus has an open face and a fluty voice. For days after I could hear his dreamy, otherworldly pride when he sang “If I could fly/Like superman through the sky/I’d live forever in my fortress of solitude/A fortress built for Mingus Rude.” These are the most memorable musical moments and the strongest moments of character building.

But despite the charge of these character sketches, the show as a whole fails on the level of story. The strength of Mingus and Dylan’s bond is never established sufficiently for the audience to mourn its eventual rupture. It doesn’t help that the sequence that is meant to portray their relationship in its fullest form is the sequence in which they become superheroes. This is handled clumsily on stage by director Daniel Aukin. Flying is variously represented by the actors standing on tiptoes and waving their arms, their shadows cast large on a screen behind them, two little figures projected on a screen, and weighted boots that allow them to tilt forward at an improbable angle. The interlude of magical realism doesn’t make sense amid a plot that’s otherwise naturalistic. It isn’t clear whether they are really supposed to be flying, or whether its a fantasy they have, and either way it serves no apparent plot purpose.

Adam Chanler-Berat is Dylan, the protagonist, and yet he doesn’t have much to do. The character doesn’t move or develop. His mom left; his best friend falls into misfortune; he is the observer. The story is supposed to be about his observing, of not being enough of an actor, not sufficiently self-aware. But this is a hard trick to pull, requiring a deft hand with storytelling, and the hand is not deft enough here.

The show’s failure to make a case for telling the story of its white hero means that despite fairly oozing liberal consciousness about race, it manages to verge on racist. It claims awareness of the problem of viewing black people as if they are props in a white story, of always making the implied subject white, as if it’s the white person’s journey that really matters. Dylan, we are told, has an attraction to black art and black pain, and uses their music as a substitute for understanding his own interior life. But this musical uses its black characters as props in its white protagonist’s journey. I don’t know how or whether the book managed to write itself out of this trap but this show totally fails to. It’s not as obvious in the first act, but the second act it becomes embarrassing. Older Dylan is given a black girlfriend (Rebecca Naomi Jones) who as a character spectacularly fails the Bechdel test, and whatever we should call the black/white analog, in an agonizingly clunky, on-the-nose song about how he hasn’t told her the truth about his childhood, she is worried about being a black collector’s item, and he’s attracted to black music because of its “authenticity” and is not in touch with his own real emotions. She then has literally nothing else to do, but she still hangs around on stage through much of the second act, singing refrains from this one song.  The irony is apparently lost on the writers. Mingus and Barrett Rude, Jr. and Sr. are interesting characters, but they are viewed through the lens of what they mean to the milquetoast white guy we, the audience, are presumed to identify with.

My theater companion asked: why did we have to see another white protagonist?  Why wasn’t this show about Mingus?  “Because The Fortress of Solitude is a semi-autobiographical novel” is an unsatisfying answer if I’m trying to evaluate a work of fiction by the universe its created, and not as a therapeutic act by the author. Dylan is a boring character. He doesn’t move or develop. His disconnection isn’t a compelling story next to Mingus or, who I’d propose as the real star: Barrett Rude, Jr. The black characters get stage time but it just doesn’t make up for the framing. The musical begins: white Dylan has something to explain about his childhood. It ends: white Dylan and his father, looking at his father’s abstract art film, in an awkwardly literary passage that made me picture the page in a novel it came from: the shape the father paints over and over represents the space inside, separated from the space outside. It’s not wrong to use that kind of abstraction on stage, or to tell a story about a character whose movements are very subtle, but in this case it’s not successful. The Fortress of Solitude never explains to the audience why it’s telling the story it chose, why we should care to be inside with Dylan, instead of any of a richer character who can carry their own story.

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