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Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Politics Of: Hating Serial


From The Bold Italic
Serial, the world's most popular pod-cast, concluded its last episode of the first season. It was, by any objective measure, a tour de force of oral storytelling. Serial, produced by This American Life's Sarah Koenig, narrates her year-long investigation into the death of high school student Hae Min Lee in 1999. The man convicted, Adnan Syed, has been serving 15 years in jail and Sarah was asked to investigate.

In each episode, Sarah discusses some aspect of the case, the murder, one of the individuals involved, and so on. At each step she's looking for a 'smoking gun' which would either exonerate Sayed or conclusively convict him. She examines cell phone evidence, witness testimony, and the blueprints of a Best Buy where some of the action (allegedly) went down.

In the end, it wraps without that smoking gun (what did you expect, guys??)--but we come away with (a) a good feeling for Sayed (whether he did it or not, he's a humble, likable guy) and a sense that the Baltimore PD was more interested in closing out the case than the deep-dive into the evidence we got.

Here is a more substantial list of winners and losers from Serial Season One.

Of course along with the millions of people who loved it, there has been no dearth of people who hate it. Hating something "because it is boring" is a cop out: Tons of things are boring--including (to some) you. That's insufficient reason to hate something (unless you are just being self indulgent). Hating something because you don't dig it and "can't get away from it" is whining: there are all kinds of things out there that take up popular culture space that we aren't all going to be inclined to like. If you don't like listening to Serial talk around the water cooler at work, wait until April and everyone will be talking about Game of Thrones again.

No--hating something because it's dull is a self-important cop out. So what are the other reasons to hate Serial ... and how good are they?

It Has A Sub-Reddit--And We Are Called Upon To Hate Sub-Reddits, Are We Not?
Reddit is, as we all know, a hive of scum and villainy. Sub-Reddits are sections of Reddit devoted to specific topics people want to discuss. From a horrible user interface to inconsistent moderation to a trolls-are-people-too attitude towards what sub-Reddits are allowed, there are plenty of reasons to be down on the Reddit subculture.

For the specific SerialPodCast Sub-Reddit, what we've got is (a) a bunch avid listeners trying to make sense of the podcast and then (b) amateur sleuths trying to find their own evidence to break the case where Sarah failed. Anyone who remembers the immediate (and wrong) fingering of suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing might well take a dim view of this.

Of course, if we're going to hate things that have active sub-reddits, we're probably going to have to hate puppy dogs, rainbows, and flowers too.

Analysis: Poor reason to hate. The Internet sleuthing isn't great but the subreddit seems reasonably well behaved and has put a 25k+ charity fund in Mae's name. Works of charity don't excuse everything (see #GamerGate trying ot do that too) but there's no clear bad behavior on serialpodcast's part The Omnivore has heard about.

Not To Be All Judgey Here--But What Is A Privileged Jewish White Girl Doing All Up In The Black / Muslim Baltimore Crime Scene??
A not insignificant number of people found Sarah's plunge into person-of-color immigrant communities to be both condescending and problematic:
It gets worse. Also in the second episode of Serial, Koenig reads passages from Hae’s diary. Koenig notes, “Her diary, by the way—well I’m not exactly sure what I expected her diary to be like but—it’s such a teenage girls diary.” (My emphasis added.) This statement seems to suggest a colorblind ideal: In Koenig’s Baltimore, kids will be kids, regardless of race or background. But I imagine there are many listeners—especially amongst people of color—who pause and ask, “Wait, what did you expect her diary to be like?” or “Why do you feel the need to point out that a Korean teenage girl’s diary is just like a teenage girl’s diary?” and perhaps, most importantly, “Where does your model for ‘such a teenage girl’s diary’ come from?” These are annoying questions, not only to those who would prefer to mute the nuances of race and identity for the sake of a clean, “relatable” narrative, but also for those of us who have to ask them because Koenig is talking about our communities, and, in large part, getting it wrong.
This becomes worse (or 'worse') when Koenig gets to Episode 8 "What's the Deal With Jay." Jay is the guy who fingered Adnan to the cops, allegedly helped bury Mae's body with Adnan, and walked free because he talked. Jay is also black. Where Adnan gets a great deal of sympathy from Koenig, Jay, some felt, was subtly contrasted to be less ... admirable. Adnan is the "Model Minority." Jay is a guy in the school who isn't in the special gifted magnet program but rather, "gen-pop" (the high school kid's term, Sarah enthusiastically points out--not her's). See here:
The problem with the model minority myth — besides the fact that it stereotypes and dehumanizes millions of people — is that by its very nature it requires a “bad” minority to balance the scales. Asians in the U.S. didn’t go from being “The Heathen Chinee” to “The Asian-American Whiz Kids” because white Americans suddenly realized we were good at math. Instead, championing Asian-Americans (including South Asians like Adnan) has been a useful way to denigrate black Americans and deny the continuing existence and impact of racism. If Asians can succeed, the myth’s champions insist, that proves racism is over and black people are responsible for their own failure to thrive. It’s an insidious and dismayingly persistent narrative, one that remains a linchpin of ongoing anti-black racism among whites and non-black people of color.
To be sure, Sarah does hail from a different cultural and class base than most of the people in the story. At one point she interviews a juror on the issue of Jay and the (black) juror explains to her that Jay is the kind of guy everyone knows--kind of. He's that cousin you'd go to if you needed to, like, hide a body (indeed, that is what Adnan allegedly went to him for--also to buy pot). Sarah tells us that she's racked her brains and--hey--she doesn't know anybody in her circles who'd know where to hide a body.

Shocking, right?

Analysis: A poor reason to hate. Even most of the commentators don't actually hate Serial for its sins of Privilege and The Omnivore doesn't have a lot of sympathy for the Social Justice context these articles take. Part of the reason Sayed is the "model minority" is that, well, he's a freakin' model minority. Even in prison, he's seen universally (by inmates, wardens, and guards) as a stand-up guy. The other-boyfriend who took the stand against him was yelled at by the district attorney (twice) for not making their target (Adnan) sound sufficiently creepy (the new Mae-Boyfriend, Don, met Adnan once and found him to be a cool guy). Jay, on the other hand, doesn't go on tape and is much sketchier (except for, you know, the whole being convicted of murder thing).

In terms of various compounded "micro-aggressions" Sarah commits in her analysis: maybe. The Omnivore finds it hard--almost impossible--to get the preferred cadences of language and social justice right even when one is trying. Attempting to do a study of cultures that are complex, nuanced, and, at times, at odds (black vs. Muslim in Baltimore is, apparently, not without its friction points) borders on impossibility if you were going to try to satisfy everyone.

But then again, if you don't want to get into each side's alleged issues with the other and just report on what you saw? It'd look a lot like Serial. Let's also note that Sarah does address racism and anti-Islamic currents (in the prosecutor's statements, for example)--but her assessment was never going to cover the hugely complex and, probably mostly unspoken, intersection of the cultural pain-points.

She probably did us a favor by avoiding that part of the story.

It's True-Crime For Liberals (By National Pravda Radio)
Someday a learned left-leaning professor will get behind the wheel of an armed, armored vehicle and take Social Justice to the road-ways in Mad Max style warfare. Observers will call the event, owing to its massive, rapt attention by academia, "NASCAR For Liberals." Until that day, though, NASCAR will be see by liberals as "for Hillbillies" and "Friends of Mitt Romney who own NASCAR teams."

If you don't think much of NPR to begin with or find newcomers to True-Crime (which is what Serial is, by genre, of course) to be kind of annoying then this is all you need. Glossily packaged with a coat of liberal activism and told to us in the soothing tones Sarah Koenig's self-depreciating enthusiastic voice, Serial is a True-Crime story that sells itself as not being a lurid, voyeuristic exercise in misery tourism. That's still more or less what it is though. It wouldn't be nearly as interesting if it were fake.

While we're on the topic, let's talk about Koenig's voice. While some people do hate it, she is certainly no Nancy Grace: A bizarro-world Slate article finds that Sarah Koenig is too likable--and that's the problem with Serial. Perhaps if she was Hillary-like "likable enough" the series would be much improved? Doubtful.

Analysis: A moderate reason to hate. Serial, a product of This American Life, cannot help but be somewhat hypocritical. There's still a dead girl at the center of all this. We're still looking into the lives of ethnic Baltimore neighborhoods like we did in The Wire--except these people are all real. NPR, for all their dedication to good reporting, is unquestionably staffed by liberals (Does anyone question how Ira Glass votes?). Where The Omnivore is a bit ambivalent about Sarah not being an insider on the cultures she's reporting on (which seems a high-bar to clear as a general statement) if your problem with NPR is that it's calibrated for liberals you've got The Omnivore there.

Also, if you just hate True-Crime--if you find it voyeuristic and tawdry--even putting lipstick on that pig won't change it. If you don't like a young girl's real death being used for entertainment (which Serial is, even as it's also education and may help a potentially innocent guy get his parole), you're entitled to.

Millions of People Hate Serial And Use That Hate To Send High-Fives
In The Interview (the movie killed by Kim Jong Un's cyber-soldiers ... further proof we live in the future), one of the main characters tells the other than the haters "Hate us 'cause they 'anus.'" (Ain't Us). While the saying is not (yet) 'a thing'--the concept sure is.

Being the most popular podcast of all time may not be the biggest media coup imaginable but it isn't nothing either. There's going to be a backlash just based on the fact that any time you encounter something that is hugely loved and you don't intrinsically love it, you have three reactions:
  1. Eh--alright. This is the most mature reaction. How many people do you know who are really mature?
  2. Ohh--I LOVE IT!! Some people will fake loving it to fit in. This why more people claim to have voted for the winning candidate in an election than actually voted for him/her.
  3. THOSE BASTARDS!! The third reaction is to take it personally when something popular isn't your cup of tea. This can take the form of superiority ('THOSE kinds of people who eat at The Olive Garden ...') or it can take the form of calculated backlash ('Guardians of the Galaxy was corporate trash! I don't know why people thought it was innovative movie making ... it's Disney, for Pete's sake!').
Analysis: Stupid. Hipster-hating is dumb.

It's Unethical, Right?
Serial isn't just new because it's a liberal-NPR-True-Crime-Podcast. It's also fairly unique in that it's playing out in real-time and semi-uniquely merging story-telling techniques (cliffhangers, reversals, sudden reveals, etc.) to give us information on real people who really suffered. Worse: as the story was continuing to be investigated while the podcasts were coming out, there was potential for "reverb" where listeners who were involved could change their stories and call Koenig back with "new information." Finally, there was the possibility that, had she revealed the Real Killer(s), she would've held it back for the big finish (that didn't happen).

There's also the issue that by (pretty transparently) wanting Adnan to be innocent, isn't she kinda smearing Jay? And while we're at it, isn't she kinda the main character--the protagonist--in the story?

And ... Jay gets smeared-by-proximity, what about Hae Min Lee? This is a Dead Girl drama with an actual for-real dead girl at the center of it. Her family does not appear in the podcast (either because they can't be found or don't want to be) but her diary (submitted as evidence) gets read on the air. Koenig is pretty nice to her--but she's still a 2-dimensional character in the production. She's a motive force--a McGuffin. Koenig is creating something with the architecture of fiction on a foundation of fact. Is that okay? Hard to know.

Analysis: A good reason to hate Serial if this bothers you. While The Omnivore is pretty sure that Koenig didn't plan to have the most successful podcast of all time, This American Life isn't an unknown small-market radio show either. She knew this was going to have some dimension of scale and she also knew what she was doing.

Everyone is going to have a different ethical line in the sand: In the Internet age, lots and lots of people get an unwelcome spot-light on them for reasons ranging from an instant of bad judgment to becoming a viral hero. In this case, the cast of Serial owe their 15-minutes of fame not intrinsically to the Internet, but to being embroiled in a murder case. Serial does sort of flatten their real experiences into a story-book in a way that, for example, a castigating Nancy Grace doesn't quite manage (at least with a hectoring Nancy Grace, there is never a moment where you can forget the incident is real)--and if they're not happy about being character-ized that's probably a reasonable complaint.

On the other hand, while you can argue that something like Serial should never exist--and that's fine as far as it goes--it doesn't seem likely that anyone can make a good case that Sarah has been callous or brutal in her portrayals of people. She has a soft touch and, while some people found her disclaimers to be overwrought, what would she sound like if she really wasn't totally sure what had happened? About the same, thinks The Omnivore.

Serial is done by professionals and, it appears, professionals who care to be fair-minded and gentle. If you're going to hate it for that, go ahead--but be aware that your bar is really, really high.

Conclusion
Serial isn't going to be to everyone's taste--but it was a phenomena of taking a small-story, cold case and using a fairly new medium to deeply reach millions of people. Whatever the problems with it--whatever its shortfalls, it was fascinating. The Omnivore questions whether or not they can even make a Season 2 that could compete with Season 1.

We'll all find out though, won't we?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Sony Hack

If, Indeed, Nork Was Responsible, We  Capture Kim Jong Un's 3.5" Disk Collection And Hold It Ransom (Location Shown)
What We Know
Here are a couple of info dumps:
  1. Time's Things We Should Learn (Sony was a soft target: The CEO had his admin email him passwords--we know because the emails with the passwords were leaked ...)
  2. Vox has a bit of an explainer.
  3. Slate finds the wholesale destruction of the network (they were blasted back to 2002, says one employee) to be nothing short of actual terrorism.
  4. FiveThirtyEight thinks Sony bailed on around 100 million in revenue.
Where Are Your Balls, Sony? Paramount?
Sony canceled The Interview. Indie theaters decided to show Team America (which also insults North Korea). Paramount (which owns Team America) pulled the plug on that.
Come on, people. Yes, a movie is not worth anyone dying over--but we have almost zero evidence along any dimension that there is a substantial threat here. More people will probably be killed going to see The Hobbit (part III) than by Nork-driven anti-cinema terrorist action.

Unlike the Mohammad Cartoons, which have, at least, a world-wide jihad behind them, North Korea has the Juche Army behind it--which is to say: no one (outside of North Korea).

Does The Omnivore have any insight? Yes: it's this--one does not stand-down a terrorist attack. The idea that "the demands were met so they'll be pacified" is bullshit. To operationalize a terror-attack inside the US is a difficult and expensive proposition. If the actors could be traced to North Korea, they would never do it anyway: Nork does not want a shooting war with the US. If they could not be traced--and if North Korea was capable of launching something that would remind us of 9/11? They'd have done it already.

The real fear for the studios here is probably not that someone will be hurt or killed--but that their own not-up-to-speed computer defenses will be tested.

What Next?
The real first strike in a for-real cyber-war worthy of the name will be doing something like knocking out the power-grid or destabilizing the stock-market ... or taking down air-traffic control (or whatever). Some infrastructure / economic attack--not a private company hack that releases embarrassing emails.

On the other hand, the White House has promised a "proportional response" which intrigues The Omnivore. Certainly jailing the perpetrators--if they can be found--would be an obvious step ... but what else? The Omnivore suggests:
  1. Use domination of the air-space above North Korea to sky write insults to Kim Jong Un's mother.
  2. Hack Kim's 486 gaming computer using zero-day exploits in Win98 SE.
  3. Revoke his Disney Annual Pass.
  4. Pull Denis Rodman's visa.
  5. Start seeding The Interview on The Pirate Bay

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Moral Event Horizon


As per TV Tropes, the Moral Event Horizon is the point in a story where a character goes from possibly redeemable to irrevocably evil--it's the point at which some action means there's no going back to a sympathetic character--no matter how "misunderstood" or horrible-their-back-story or whatever. In real life, just as in academics, people can argue when that line has been crossed.

Don't Be Evil
Yesterday the Taliban attacked and killed over 100 people in a Pakistani school--most of them, apparently, children. ISIS has released a pamphlet that justifies (and explains the rules around) taking non-Islamic women as slaves. Of course Boko Haram has, of course, split the difference by taking school girls for slaves (although they were probably Muslim).

There are pragmatic reasons for this behavior: in the under-sexed Islamic culture with far too many young men without prospects, the idea of getting a woman as bounty is a recruiting tactic (so is less permanent jihad-justified sex). The Pakistani school attack may have been done to shore up internal conflicts and prove the Taliban is still relevant. Brutality as a tactic is useful for breaking the enemy's morale and terrifying them into submission (as has happened repeatedly with ISIS's cross-desert push). Finally, certain atrocities, like the journalist beheadings, are designed to draw ransom dollars and/or maneuver the US into a ground war where the battle-space assets the terrorists have (suicide bombers) may be used more effectively than against a lazy-paced drone-war (as well as legitimizing the caliphate).

That said, it really does appear that radical Islam, as a whole, has taken Google's mission statement and made it one word shorter.

The Torture Documents
Senate Democrats, for what are probably political reasons, have released an analysis of the CIA's torture program (called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques: Do they read Orwell at the CIA? Hell yes, they read Orwell). It details a variety of things such as "rectal feeding" (which is, at least, a medically accurate description of the technique until you get to the word feeding). While various parties have defended the actions described (it was early days after 9/11! We did get valuable intel! It was medically necessary!!) the facts in question are not disputed: We actually did these things. It was sanctioned by the government.

There will be no judicial reprisals.

What's Your Mission Statement?
The Omnivore is not making the case that the acts depicted in the torture document equate to the magnitude of the atrocities that radical Islam (ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram) are perpetrating. They don't--and if you think they do, by some moral objective moral index, The Omnivore can't help you there. That's not what's interesting about these two observations.

What's interesting to The Omnivore is that if "character is what you do when you think nobody's watching," then whatever it's called when it's printed under your letterhead is a very strong statement about not just your values--but your public attestation of your values. The CIA torture program was done in the dark (and, The Omnivore believes, the partisan divide in defense of it hews to the partisan divide in general: if it had been an Obama administration performing the torture, The Omnivore suspects that many of the Republicans who are okay with it today would decry it*).


However, whether or not that is the case, the idea that torture is a "core value" of America doesn't pass the sniff test and there's just no denying that torture is a "core value" of radical Islam (same with beheading, targeting children, slavery, etc.) The Omnivore isn't sure there has ever been such a media-visible divide in existence.

Certainly, just prior to the Civil War, there was a lot of debate about slavery--but the gestalt we see today is, The Omnivore believes, leagues beyond even that. To be sure, things like the British Empire's exercise of colonial muscle contained atrocities that the 'folks at home' were probably okay with--so long as they were happening to browner, less English-speaking, and less protestant people--but The Omnivore isn't sure there was a much-better peer example around at the time.

What the colonial forces of the BE were doing was, The Omnivore thinks, kind of par for the course at the time. Today, ISIS has rolled their Standard Operating Procedure right back to the middle ages--but with video cameras and the Internet.

This juxtaposition might be new.

The fact that it is a 'successful' strategy (ISIS, with its conduct fully acknowledged and public is able to, for example, recruit westerners) is, to The Omnivore, amazing: possibly there has never been as easy a way to cross the Moral Event Horizon just by crossing a boarder (with blogs and tumblrs to help you out). Even the Nazi death-camps were done more or less done "in the dark."

We have a stark example of two different competing morality models that are not just varied--but are literally almost diametrically opposed. There is a generally agreed upon world-wide morality ratified by the United Nations and includes numerous member nations both in the east and west. There is the black-flag and banner of radical Islam that wears its monstrous morality publicly on its sleeve.

Like a black hole that morality attracts those who enter its orbit--those who are susceptible to radicalization--who are influenced by its message of victimization justifying anything--and using damaged religious ideology to enable its adherent's disease--radical Islam is vacuuming up people who are willing to accept its worldview as legitimate.

Horrible things and people have always existed--and they have sometimes (perhaps often) reached positions of power over others--but today we have the naked singularity out in the open. We can look down from satellites and see them out there: standards bearers of a level of darkness even Stalinist Russia sought to hide from the world at large, spin away, or obfuscate under layers of Utopian objectives.

Radical Islam may not represent the existential threat the Nazi regime did but it exceeds it in embrace of an abhorrent and public ideology.

The Black Hole is here. It's drawing people in--and every time it gets one, it gets a little stronger.

* At least The Omnivore hopes so. And while we're here, on the left there is a tendency to try to draw various equivalences between various evil forces and the American government (especially what is going on in Guantanamo and CIA black sites).

The things going on there are atrocities--and need to be stopped (and, ideally, punished)--but they are NOT America's mission statement and arguing that they are is an argument that only benefits the terrorists and their apologists.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

YES Country For Old Men?


It's Not As Bad As It Looks--Honest ...
A set of data points:
  • In 1984 Terminator starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Biehn. They were 37 and 28 years old respectively. 
  • Stallone, in Rambo (First Blood Part II) was an older 39 years of age.
  • In 1988, Bruce Willis was 33 years old, climbing around through the sky scraper in Die Hard (gas was 77 cents a gallon!).
  • Gibson was 31 in Lethal Weapon. The scholarly Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) was 39 in 1981.
Another set:
  • On IMDB's Action-Movies link, 40% of the top-10 reference franchises from the 80's or before (Star Wars, Terminator, Jurassic Park, and James Bond--which may not count as it is (a) earlier and (b) really re-booted--on the other hand, Daniel Craig is 46). These are all original movies coming out next year or the year after.
  • Two major old-school (action-star shoots everyone) movies John Wick and The Equalizer came out this year. Wick stars Keanu Reeves. The Equalizer, Denzel Washington. Denzel is 60 years old. Keanu is 50. Both were top-drawer movies with intentions to start a franchise.
  • The Expendables III's headliners are all north of 50 (save Jason Statham at 47). The average age of the cast in Expendables II was 52. The median: 51 (which was Van Damme's age). Yes, the point was that they were kind of old--but the movie was no joke: it was a for-real, high-end action flick designed to appeal to 18-24 R-rated action movie fans. Expendables III cut violence to PG-13 and Stallone decided that was a big mistake and would never happen again.
  • Tom Cruise is still a high-billing action star with cutting edge sci-fi roles as he crests 50 years of age (granted, he could pass for 30 with his shirt off).
A final point: In 2000 the New York times created a second NYT best-sellers list because there were complaints that Harry Potter was crowding out more "adult titles" by holding onto the top-slots for so long. In 2008 those titles dropped off entirely for the first time in 10 years.

What Happened To Millennials?
The Millennials, usually judged to be born between 1981 and 1996, would have been too young to have seen many of the R-rated 80's action movies of the 80's and early 90's in the theater--but they have been able to catch up on those mega-stars in the theaters as they age.

While there are some counter-arguments (Christian Bale is a leading action man at 37, Captain America's Chris Evans is 33) The Omnivore thinks we can agree that attempts to make Shia LaBeouf, aged 28, the next action hero for a new generation have pretty much collapsed. 

Let's also note that an awful lot of hot properties today are lavish YA fiction titles (almost exclusively post-apocalypse). These are being pitched to all ages from teens to 40 year olds (Twilight, for example, crosses several demographics explicitly and lucratively). Unlike cartoons that contain "Two levels" of appeal that are generally entirely separate (pop-culture jokes the younger audience will not catch, voice-casting designed to appeal to grown-ups), the gestalt of these movies is not so divided.

Whatever the driver, it appears to The Omnivore that "youth culture" has extended its reach by about two decades: if action movie heroes were solidly in their 30's in the 80's, today, if we took an average (for male, leading roles, anyway) we'd find that A-Grade titles--the name-brand big stars--seem to be closer to their mid 40's or even 50's. 

Even for female leads, Scarlett Johansson and Angelina Jolie clock in at 30 and 39 respectively, there seems to be some shift across the board.

At the same time, the content seems to be skewing a bit younger: Tolkien was writing for grown-ups (and nerdy, history-slanted grown-ups, at that). The Lord of the Rings started in 2001. On the other hand, while Twilight isn't exactly for teenagers, we're seeing big-budget movies off books that were aimed at teenagers being turned into the next mega-bucks franchises (Maze Runner, Hunger Games, Divergent). And let's not forget that super hero movies, once fairly niche products, are now in absolute pop-culture over-drive. This isn't all because of better special effects: a big part of it is that Marvel (Disney) has figured out that they can break the mold and make high-quality films with these characters that everyone will enjoy (Guardians of the Galaxy is breath-taking in its willingness to throw away the rule-book).

If, indeed, this is a real phenomena and not just observation bias on the part of The Omnivore, it raises a question: Did Millennials get screwed out of their own youth culture? Was it crowded out by Gen-X's which just never left (Denzel is kicking off a new franchise and we'll expect to keep seeing Equalizer movies for the next 4-6 years? At 60? Really?). Harrison Ford is still the big draw for action and sci-fi movies?

(The first Call of Duty came out in 2003 and the first Grand Theft Auto 1997--both were very different in their first incarnations than the games we now know though ...).

If So, Then What?
There's a reasonable argument that, at the top-levels of production value, there are a limited number of slots. There IS a mechanism for "crowding out" one demographic over another (video game makers can only produce so many AAA Titles a year. 2014's Alien: Isolation is based strongly on a 1979 horror movie). On the other hand, The Omnivore thinks it's less of a phenomena of marketers deciding 18-24 year olds really want to see 55 year old action stars and more that 35-50 year olds still want to see action-adventure movies their parents would have rolled their eyes at. The Omnivore remembers reading the last Harry Potter book on a business flight: He was hardly the only guy in a suit with one of the massive hard-cover tomes in his lap.

Netflix's House of Cards shows Kevin Spacy's political super-predator playing Call of Duty on an X-Box and it's not done to show he's immature (well, not exactly). It's what he does to relieve stress. He's undoubtedly not alone in that. Today's grown-ups play video games, watch science-fiction movies, and read comic books just like they did 30 year years ago in when Terminator came out.

Let's also not discount that today's young adults have way less spending power than the previous generation's. That might account for demographic marketing shifts too.

However, if this trend keeps up, The Omnivore's kids are going to be watching The Expendables X when they're 14 and going "Of course they're all in their 80's--that's how old action heroes are."

The Omnivore also wonders: In a post 9/11 culture, it doesn't seem we've exactly lost our appetite for men with guns who solve problems that can only be addressed by high-volume fire (after all, Bale made Equilibrium--and his Batman was iconic ... even if that rendition was heavily based on the 80's Frank Miller incarnation)--but why aren't there more 28-34 year old actors around to fill that role? Why is a 50 year old Tom Cruise saving the world over and over and we're still trying to recapture the magic of the 80's whether it be a Terminator reboot (that callls back, explicitly, to the first movie), a Mad Max reboot (rather than a continuation of some sort--since they're using another actor), or pouring money into a Jurassic Park "sequel?" The Omnivore gets Star Wars: that really never left--but the first movie will, apparently, reprise the old cast--now, literally, the old cast. Does the new generation really want to see that? Does The Omnivores'?

There are some young 'action heroes'--but the 80's style one-guy, his machine gun, and an endless supply of bad-guys, seems to be the domain of the guys who started it. Bruce Willis had a full head of hair in Die Hard--but who remembers him that way? Maybe our mental picture of who does that (goes on a roaring rampage of destruction) has kept up with the passing years? Maybe the one-man-with-a-gun today--to younger people--is just a school shooter?

The Omnivore is currently playing Alien: Isolation, a video game that tries, as hard as it can, to recapture the vibe and look of a 30+ year old film. It's not the first: the franchise is a long line of producers saying "Alien and Aliens were really good--can we get back to that?" Finally, says The Omnivore, they did: The computerized "sets" include retro-features like green-screen terminals and boxes of audio tapes that people in the 80's listened to. The Omnivore did actual programming and computer work on green screens and had boxes of music tapes: did any of the programmers on the title? The Omnivore doubts it. 

Coda
The Omnivore remembers being stunned by the first Indiana Jones--walking out of the theater into the bright sunlight and just being wowed. He had no idea the movie was based on the serial adventure clips some 20 or 30 years prior--but when he learned that, he knew that he wouldn't necessarily "get" all the in-jokes, tropes, and so on of that material. Indiana Jones wasn't wholly new (the same way Wire-Fu wasn't new when western audiences gaped at it in The Matrix)--but it felt that way.

What happens, though, when everything feels that way? What happens when something approaching the majority of characters pitched by big-budget entertainment at a new generation are heavily based on work that came prior? How does that work? How does that feel?

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Why Eric Garner Might Be Different


In USA Today, David Boaz writes "Eric Garner could spark American Spring." It's worth a read. Why would the Garner killing (by police choke-hold) be different from the many others? Boaz hits most of the high points--but The Omnivore was going to write this article even before he read the Boaz piece. Here's why:

There's Video
A key piece of Vietnam War analysis is that a key difference between Vietnam and the "good war" WWII was, from a Public Relations perspective, the presence of TV cameras. Let's not over-state that: WWII had a lot more going for it anyway (an actual existential threat to the US, evil-personified in the Nazis, way more people involved all around)--but still, some stuff that was part of a planned mission (such as Fire-Bombing Dresden) would probably not have flown as well had there been cell-phone video for people to watch in their living-rooms.

Video is visceral, disturbing, and creates a massive sense of certainty (Let's also not overstate that either though: Video can be deceptive. It can be edited. It can be assessed and spun: The way Rodney King's attackers got off was a frame-by-frame assessment of the video that convinced the jury King was still trying to get up and keep fighting. Maybe that was true--or maybe not). If video exists, whatever its origins, for the vast majority of us, even in today's age of video-editing and special effects, seeing is believing.

There is Audio
In the Tamir Rice shooting, there's video at a distance--but no audio. The presence of the two gives us the disturbing, heart-breaking, "I can't breathe" (several times). Once again, this shuts down a window of speculation that could be used to drive a deeper wedge between potential partisans. If someone reported that Garner was saying "I'm going to kill you--KILL YOU ALL!!" while he was in the hold, we'd have several different (questionable) lip-reading forensic 'experts' weighing in.

With the audio, you get to hear what was there--and it's harder to NBC-edit too.

The Big One: It Breaks The Current Narrative
The Omnivore asserts that the odds are, if you supported Wilson (for whatever reason, including thinking he was probably attacked, if not necessarily), you very likely came down in defense of (a) the justice system as a whole and (b) specifically the grand jury system--which, after all, (if you supported Wilson) got it right.

Using our hypothetical time machine, though, The Omnivore goes back and says "Hey--how much do you think it would take for a grand jury to actually indict a cop?"

"Well,"you say (several days ago),"there would need to be pretty clear evidence that the cop was acting improperly--that there was no reasonable fear for their life--and that they over-reacted in their use of deadly force."

"What would it take," the Time-Travelling Omnivore asks, "Video?"

"Naw," your Back-In-Time-Self says, maybe even slightly smugly. "That'd be nice to have--but sufficient eye-witnesses all telling the same or mostly the same story ought to do it. Maybe a ccoroner report that showed his hands were up? That'd probably get the guy to trial at least."

"You sure about that?" Asks the Asynchronous Omnivore*.

"Pretty sure," your a-temporal self responds.

But today? Are you still that sure? Are you still that sure the grand jury in Ferguson got it right too?

You could still be--The Omnivore acknowledges there's a massive document dump that Ferguson had that NYC hasn't (yet). The stories we heard from witnesses did at least include those that would put Wilson under attack. Maybe some people even legitimately believed Wilson was probably guilty--but read all the material and came to the conclusion he wasn't. The Omnivore bets there weren't many of those, though.

If the grand jury system looks like, at least in some cases, it's simply dysfunctional (such as this one) then the rational for Wilson not having a trial collapses.

And Let's Note: Not All Grand Juries Are Created Equal
FiveThirtyEight finds that in the NYC borough, Staten Island, where the grand jury convened, the public sentiment is far more on the side of police than the rest of NYC. If the location of the grand jury is largely what matters in its findings (say, more than the facts?) then is the process broken? We (maybe) can't conclude the FiveThirtyEight is completely correct about this (and, to be fair, they don't say "the facts don't matter")--but the analysis is disturbing.

It Disrupts the Political DivideThere was a major conservative black-lash against the Garner verdict (in the articles--not as much the comment sections). The Omnivore is forced to wonder if this was partially due to many conservatives feeling betrayed by the grand jury system they had supported in Ferguson--but certainly there's a string of libertarian thought that killing the guy for selling cigarettes simply illustrates the "injustice inherent in the system."

And, well, there's video: if we could wonder what went down for a little under 2 minutes with Wilson and Brown, we don't have to wonder here. If you want a reason for bi-partisanship, you don't have to look much further than that.

What Now?
One of the harder things to deal with in the Garner case is that the Brown-Solution: police body cameras, doesn't sound like it would help, here does it? After all--the Garner cops were filmed (on the other hand, the guy doing the filming is in jail now--because, he says, of retaliation by police for filming them--so, uh, maybe it would help?).

But there's a reason to think that having cameras on and making sure the police know they're on all the time would help. There's a second Eric Garner video: this one shows the aftermath--around seven minutes of the cops hanging out around his dead body with no sense of emergency whatsoever. If you are wondering why (some) people are harping on the idea that "Black Lives Matter," wonder no more: watch the video.

Does it look like anyone cares all that much? Brown was in the street for four hours. While the person taking movies in both videos were certainly known by police, The Omnivore suspects that prevalent cameras--a knowledge that all encounters will be subject to review--could create far better behavior than we see today, even if it isn't "sincere." After all, the idea of an omniscient judge looking down at you all the time is a facet of religion that a lot of people thinks keeps society on the straight-and-narrow.

Just How Bad Is it Today, Anyway?
The Omnivore doesn't have a better place to put this--so it's going here: Scott Alexander dives into the data around the difference in how police treat blacks and whites (it's a long piece--but it's fascinating, and you should read it) and concludes that the state of racial relations is not, erm, black-and-white. There is a big delta in death-penalty for blacks and whites. There is some difference in sentencing and police stops--but it is not nearly as bad as The Omnivore had expected. On the other hand, here's PEW on how blacks and whites rate police:


The polling shows that blacks have little faith in the system at all--in some places by large majorities. If the numbers on policing (the Scott Alexander piece) show a certain amount of bias against blacks, the PEW study shows a massive amount of perceived bias. This is a problem all by itself: fixing behavior on the part of police can only address some of that gap. Consider how long American cars had to improve their quality before people had any faith in them again. It's also worth noting that the white numbers for excellent police behavior are pretty slim in places too.

Cameras would help. Independent review boards would help too (prosecutors must work with the police every day of their jobs for their entire career--one can see how indicting an officer could 'damage' that relationship). Changing the appearance of police to make them more friendly / less military looking would certainly help (there is evidence that the more you make someone look like a storm-trooper, the more they act like it).

In the end, all these things need to happen: because of Eric Ganer ... this time they might.


* The Omnivore knows that's not what it means.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Artificial Black Conservativsm


The Omnivore has wondered what a black (or other minority--or, hell, even female) conservative makes of it when they read the comments section of articles on race or get, for example, the Confederate Battle Flag thrown at them on Twitter. Do they think: These are my peeeps (frowny-face)? Do they actually agree that black Americans are predominantly thugs out there committing most of the crimes and rampantly engaging in "Polar Bear Hunting" (as the left-wing media struggles to cover it up?).

Or is the thought process something like this:
  1. It's just a tiny bunch of bad apples (... who do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to the bunch!!)
  2. Who are probably liberal trolls anyway that are 'false-flagging' (which has the double-punch of making phantom-liberals the "real racists" and exonerating the non-posting imaginary masses)
  3. And, anyway, there's still work to be done? Right--and that work is being done--these people on the Internet aren't leaders.
The above logic is used in some permutation for excusing bad behavior on everything from Social Justice to #GamerGate--it's hard to falsify and it's a kind of security blanket for people who want to benefit from the parts of the movement they like and distance themselves emotionally from the parts they don't.

Enter Chidike Okeem
Chidike Okeem, on the other hand, goes and writes this: The End of Artificial Black Conservatism. It takes an entirely different perspective:
The mainstream conservative movement has no respect for independent black conservative thinkers. Creative and intrepid black conservative intellectuals are counterproductive to the role that the black conservative is supposed to fill in the mainstream American conservative movement. Blacks in the mainstream American conservative movement are simply resigned to being convenient spokespeople who dutifully absolve the white right of any unpleasant charges of racism. Indeed, artificial black conservatism is more beneficial to the white right than it is to the black community. Artificial black conservatives are every bit as subservient to the right as many left-wing blacks are to the American left.
The Omnivore was reminded of another writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates writing in The Atlantic, about Bill Cosby:
The author of this moment is Bill Cosby. In 2004, he gave his "Poundcake Speech," declaring black youth morally unworthy of their very heritage. Cosby followed the speech with a series of call-outs. I observed several of these call-outs. Again, unlike typical black Republicans, Cosby spoke directly to black people. He did not go on Fox News to complain about the threat of the New Black Panther Party. He did not pen columns insisting the black family was better off under slavery. He was not speaking as a man sent to assure a group that racism did not exist, but as a man who sincerely believed that black people, through the ethic of "twice as good," could overcome. That is the core of respectability politics. Its appeal is broad in both black and white America, and everywhere Cosby went he was greeted with rapturous applause.
What both authors are noting here is that to a certain extent (and maybe a very, very large extent) mainstream black conservatives pay their political bills by assuring white conservatives that (a) they are not racist and that (b) racism mostly does not exist anymore anyway. Cosby was notable for giving moral lectures when he wasn't running for anything. But for a white person who may have a sensitive spot for being called a racist, having either credible black celebrities or black politicians say these things is crucial: Hey, I'm just repeating what Bill Cosby said--go call him racist!

Here's the deal: if you acknowledge that the black conservative messaging from the top down is (or at least appears to be) largely for the benefit of white people then you have a problem: those comments sections on the Internet? They are arguably the product of leadership.

Whose Side Are You On?
One doesn't have to look any further than Gallup to come to the conclusion that there might be a method to the madness of selecting black conservatives to shore up the emotional weak-points of a mostly white, largely older, increasingly, uh, southern voter-base:
If the GOP's strategy is, middle-term, to win more white people, that would make a lot of sense. If you are willing to add in actual 'racism' (not even necessarily of the hood-wearing Klan-type--but perhaps of the more subtle racism without racist subconscious / negative impressions style?) and work under the largely tautological premise that politics will benefit those most active in them? Then it's also not hard to understand why only 2% of blacks would logically choose Republicans if we knew nothing about them other than their demographic make-up.

But wait, you say, what about the principles of limited government, entrepreneurialism, and social values rooted in authentic morality (Okeem's description of Republican values black people would logically adopt)?

Well--yes: if you define 'authentic morality' as pro-life and limited government as cutting everything but the military (including Big Bird, apparently) you are certainly moving away from the mainstream left (not sure where entreprenuerialism falls in--maybe government regulations?).

On the other hand, go read the Brietbart comments sections. No, seriously, go read them.

In his article, Okeem calls out two specific policy positions that he thinks mainstream conservatives have fallen down on. These are:
  • Affirmative Action
  • The War on Drugs
Let's look at them in order.

Affirmative Action
Okeem writes that the authentic reason to oppose Affirmative Action (racial quotas for college admissions) is because it (a) puts unqualified black people into environments they fail at and (b) also cast doubt on black people who succeed without its help. He takes issue with the "reverse discrimination against whites" argument that is used predominantly by both mainstream conservatives and white-nationalists.

The War on Drugs
Okeem notes that Republicans are more preoccupied with Michelle Obama's food-plans than the War on Drugs which has culturally devastated the black community. He calls out liberal Democrat Charlie Rangel for advocating it and notes that standing behind the War on Drugs is a litmus test for "true conservatism."

Let's Look At These Positions
These are interesting politically for different reasons. The first because it's a great look into racial policy. The second because it's kinda already the Democrat's position.

Affirmative Action and Prop 209
Affirmative Action--quota-based racial inclusion--was first called by that name in 1961. In 1996 California enacted Proposition 209 which effectively reversed it for college campuses. Fredrik Deboer has a fantastic blog post that points out the following:

After Prop 209's effects hit in 1998 the percent of black students in the University of California system dropped precipitously (that 2+% is thousands and thousands of black students). He notes they "made it up" over the years following by doing things that got around the letter of the law (like letting the to 10% of any public California high school attend a UC school). Indeed, Slate notes that these measures (such as having a class-based admission system that promotes students from lower income areas) are responsible for the difference and liberals should vote for their wide-spread adoption as well (in lieu of a blunter, entirely race-based quota system).

One would think this would be a point of easy agreement for everyone, conservatives and liberals alike--but Deboer goes on to show a graph that suggests that what really made up the increase in the graph above was a dramatic increase in minorities in California period:
The alternate strategies may have made up some of the difference but the gap--the red-line at the bottom goes up in 1998 and then more or less holds steady as the under-representation gap rises.

This presents liberals with a real problem: are quotas (and therefore statistically relevant representation at the start of college careers even if they do not finish as strongly) worth placing unqualified students in schools? Is it worth giving white-nationalists (and, erm, Republicans) a bone to pick?

It's a good question. 

The War on Drugs
On the other hand, The Omnivore isn't finding a lot of air or light between most democrats and ending the War on Drugs. Okeem strangely calls out Rangel who, yes, is a Democrat--(a) other than being notably black and notably an anti-drug crusader in the 80's didn't have near the impact of Nixon (who coined the War on Drugs term) and Reagan who vastly increased the effort and, uhm, (b) Rangel has reversed his position.

In our last election marijuana legalization was seen widely as a liberal victory. While The Omnivore understands that Ron Paul Libertarian voters are also pro-hemp, it seems strange that if one wanted to address the devastating drug-war's effects on the black community in an article on conservatism that you'd finger Rangel at all.

Convincing half the country to abandon the War on Drugs might be hard--but the other half is almost there.

Let's Get Back To Those Comments Sections
Okeem didn't write about Michael Brown in that article (although he has in others)--but he did call out mainstream conservatives for treating the shooting of Trayvon Martin as "inconsequential."

Last night, in New York, another grand jury exonerated a police officer who used a choke-hold on Eric Garner. His crime was selling cigarettes without the proper taxes. People have compared him to Bundy who faced down the entire Bureau of Land Management with armed militia guys over not paying taxes. Bundy, of course, was white.

 The Omnivore was reading reactions and came across Balloon Juice--a conservative-turned-liberal blog. The article was pretty straight forward: the writer is appalled by the decision. Here are some of the comments:
We need a federal “accountability” act that states that once the Police begin taking you into custody, lay hands on you, or shoot at you they have to account for your death or injury completely and “I didn’t know he could die” or “I didn’t intend for him to die” is unacceptable, simply unacceptable. Frankly I’d also put “I feared for my safety” or “the safety of others” under really strict scrutiny as well.
and
You’ve got anger and frustration. Claiming you have nothing is letting go. Do not allow yourself to let go, because, while it’s easy for us whites to let go, blacks can’t. Instead, use your anger and frustration. Do everything you can think of to try to change it: Contacting representatives at all levels, letters to the editor, whatever.
and
How can this keep happening?
The Omnivore then went over to conservative mega-blog, Hot Air, where Noah Rothman writes a piece that is actually very critical of the police and their use of the choke hold. Let's look at the comments here:
Do we actually know that [that it was a choke hold]? Fox had a guest on earlier today disputing that, calling it a seatbelt hold rather than a chokehold.
and
Noah, your pathetic.
 and
I didn’t go riot and loot when O.J. was acquitted.
I don’t view these stories as an excuse to burn down buildings and steal myself a new TV, or bottle of tequila….
and
Noah is no better than the idiots in Ferguson pushing a false story. According to him the cop intentionally killed Garner for selling cigarettes. Oh, and being black.
The Omnivore is aware that these are just randomly chosen selections of Internet detritus that don't necessarily show a larger picture but The Omnivore wonders what Okeem thinks when he reads the contrast.

At what point does a movement grounded in limited government (which, as we know, no side is actually limiting in any meaningful way), the pro-life position (which, for certain trimesters, anyway, has broader bi-partisan support than a decade ago), and less small business regulation (what is the last time anyone talked seriously about that on the national stage) become too damaged--too hostile--to hold its core philosophy? If ending the War On Drugs--or convincing liberals to adopt class-based admissions over racial quotas will lead to better outcomes for black people?

Who appears to be further away here?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The End of Google?



No, It's not that European law-suit. This post from "Jim's Blog" (tag line "Liberty in an unfree world") holds that political correctness, partially driven by Google wanting to get cozy with the government, has led to the hiring of unqualified women and the firing of males who told the truth about it:
Google had an elaborate system of metrics to try to measure how people and teams performed, and these metrics showed that the women were no good. Therefore the metrics were sexist, since they had disparate impact. They were replaced by non sexist metrics, which metrics showed that women are wonderful. Metrics that show advantage men are disparate impact. Metrics that show advantage women are just a reflection of the fact that women are wonderful.
Sexist males were laid off, where sexism was largely manifested by doing work that females could not understand or participate in. Which is to say, they laid off their smartest males, in part because smartness tends to exclude women, in part because the new metrics that showed that women are wonderful also showed that their smartest people were doing a really bad job.
The blog is pretty dead-center of the NRx (Neo-Reactionary) school of thought with the idea that genetics ('human bio-diversity') dictate intelligence and that traditional gender roles (where women are certainly not doing math and science) are objectively preferred.

The interesting part comes in the comments where someone purporting to be an actual employee of Google declares the whole thing bullshit. Blog-author Jim, explains to the alleged Googler that Google has two disparate hiring processes--one that hires men and another, secret one, that hires unqualified women and minorities.

No, says the apocryphal Google-Employee, that's not true--or, if it is, he sees no sign of it. He's hired women through the normal process and no unqualified woman was hired on his watch. He wants to know how Blogger-Jim knows ("knows") all this stuff? Jim says he has friends who work at Google who tell him this. Who he can't reveal anything about.

Uh-huh.

So, Is Political Correctness Destroying Google?
No. The Omnivore actually knows people who work at The Googles and reached out to them. While one couldn't comment (He Did Nothing), even off the record (because of their position this was not unexpected) the story is bullshit (The Omnivore has also been used as a reference for a female Google Employee and is pretty sure the interview process The Omnivore participated in was not part of a secret hiring cabal). Even the employee who couldn't comment was scornful.

These are people The Omnivore has known for decades (in one case, uh, many, many decades) and would have been able to provide nuance if these allegations were true. Google is not more dedicated to social justice than it is to being incredibly smart (one of the Google-friends contrasted Google to Akamai --another "smart people company" where she had also worked--and said the best Akamai programmers were average at Google. The Omnivore believes her).

That said, of course, there's no way to know, is there? The Omnivore admits that the article--with its prescriptions of DOOM and focus on the injustice of Social Justice has a certain ... Truthiness ... would you say?

After all, if you go read the article there's:
  • No sourcing. Everything is presented as commonly-held fact.
  • Zero nuance. Everything has one cause (political correctness) and one effect (firing the smart people).
  • Evidence to the contrary (Google's valuation has reached an all time high in the past 12 months. If we assume markets are good for setting prices, what of that?)
This is a very strongly present argument for something that the author (a) admits they only know second hand (if even that--the sources never come up in the body of the article--only after Jim is challenged) and (b) are incredibly impactful (Jim is drawing bright-line conclusions from what would be statistically limited policies: Google does employ women--but not nearly as many as white men).
We Don't Know What Those Jobs Are, Either

While it's fair to say that Jim's blog, much less the entire NRx movement, doesn't depend on getting some facts about Google right, The Omnivore thinks this post--the response from a Googloid--and the author's refusal to either back down or back up his assertions is telling. Why?

Well, if there's one thing that NRx absolutely needs at its foundation it's this: it has to be smart and right. If it it's wrong, say, about human-bio-diversity (black people are genetically less intelligent) then instead of being a teller of hard truths in a self-blinded world, it's just recycling racist tropes at the speed of the Internet. That's not the way to bring the NRx Utopia into existence (read it!).

Warning: Objects Under Consideration May Appear Smarter Than They Are
What The Omnivore was struck by in the blog post was the utter surety with which the author was making extreme, questionable, and unsourced claims. Yes, this is kind of "What everybody does"--but the NRx isn't supposed to be everybody. In fact, that's kinda the point-of-pride. Secondly, NRx readers are supposed to be Less Wrong, overcoming cognitive bias types who, as the song goes, Won't Get Fooled Again

So what's going on here? What if the NRx was formulated (unintentionally) to play on cognitive biases the same way optical illusions prey on visual 'software errors'? For example: We believe mean statements to be smarter than nice ones. We are hardwired to badly evaluate risk (and favor more 'glamorous' risks over more mundane ones). Our culture is rife with end-time scenarios and they are popular. We are susceptible to flattery--even if we know we're being flattered.

The NRx memes play on all of these (if you are in the NRx target market, anyway) and the Decline and Fall of the Google Empire does too. It predicts disaster in the meanest of terms (if not for the world, for the Internet--and if not just for Google, all smart companies who will fall to the disease of Social Justice). It overestimates risk-factors badly (even if those 2% black Google employees were senior engineers, how much damage would they do to a company of more than 55k people?). 

And, finally, if you are a white male who feels even a microscopic decline in their privilege? It flatters you--you are special. You will be elevated when the End Times come (GNON! GNON! LET IT BURN!!).

What if that's all just an illusion?