Tuesday, December 15, 2015

We're getting played constantly...

...and we need to put our collective foot down.

Check out this ruling from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). An audit conducted by a GAO General Counsel indicated that the EPA had been misusing social media platforms as a means of ginning up support for its Clean Water Rule (which is a huge overreach of government authority, but that is neither here nor there). From the conclusion of the ruling:
The use of appropriated funds associated with implementing EPA’s Thunderclap campaign and establishing hyperlinks to the NRDC and to the Surfrider Foundation webpages violated prohibitions against publicity or propaganda and grassroots lobbying contained in appropriations acts for FYs 2014 and 2015. Because EPA obligated and expended appropriated funds in violation of specific prohibitions, we also conclude that EPA violated the Antideficiency Act, 31 U.S.C. § 1341(a)(1)(A), as the agency’s appropriations were not available for these prohibited purposes.
The issue is that the EPA and its agents tried to "increase awareness" of the issues involved in the Clean Water Act via social media with posting that disguised their source (i.e. the EPA) in order to give the appearance that the postings were coming from "regular people" and/or from private advocacy orgs. And as the New York Times details, this is not the first time government agencies have crossed this line:
The G.A.O. concluded similarly that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid violated the anti-propaganda act in 2004 when it covertly paid for news videos distributed to television stations without disclosing that it had funded the work. The Department of Education, in 2005, was also found to have violated the same law when it hired a public relations firm to covertly promote the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
But you know, it seems to me that there shouldn't be a line here to begin with. Why, exactly, is the government engaging in marketing and advertising for this type of stuff at all?

The government is supposed to be in charge of the overall system. It is tasked—at national, state, and local levels—with specific functions and duties, like maintaining the court system, providing security through police and armed forces, keeping infrastructure in good repair, and so on. I understand the need of elected politicians to brag about what they are doing, to notify the public of things like improvements and success stories, but this can be accomplished through press conferences, interviews with the media and in some cases simple signage. Also, notifying people about deadlines and the like (taxes, healthcare, etc.) is completely understandable.

But all of the above stuff is fundamentally informative. It's not about trying to sway public opinion on specific issues (maybe on specific politicians), make money, or increase the authority/reach of a given government agency. In contrast, the EPA's campaigns are most assuredly of these latter sorts, as are the above transgressions of other agencies.

Of course, one might just write these off as aberrations, I guess, especially since the GAO has successfully pointed them out. Yet, I think that the issue goes much deeper. Much of the stuff that is acceptable by GAO standards shouldn't be acceptable, at all. For instance, there is the United Stated Postal Service. The Constitution tasked the feds with establishing postal routes, but that's about it. Why is the USPS advertising services? Why is it marketing itself via its support of things like bicycling teams? Why is it trying to compete with private entities like UPS and FedEx? The USPS has a simple job to do and it should just do it.

At the State level, there are the millions upon millions of dollars spent on marketing and advertising for lotteries. Talk about something way over the line. Think about it. Regardless of whether or not one sees these lotteries as a good idea (I don't think they are), promoting them means targeting an audience. And who is being targeted? As a matter of course, people who need money, right? People who are not wealthy, many of whom are in fact poor, and retired people living on fixed incomes, this is the target audience.

So States are purposefully trying to wrest dollars from their own citizens for a game of chance where almost all participants are going to lose money. And a good chunk of these citizens lack the disposable income to spend on such things. It's actually pretty outrageous: the States are using marketing and advertising to make citizens worse off. It's exactly the opposite of "promoting the general welfare," isn't it?

Beyond all of this, there are the agencies like the EPA and the Department of Education—and plenty more at state and local levels—trying to force their own agendas, to justify their own leaderships' vision, on the public at large. All told, what we have are countless billions of dollars being spent by people in the government on stuff that the government isn't actually supposed to be doing, isn't actually tasked with doing.

Limited government. It's actually a thing. Look it up.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Banana republics are better than franchised cities

Chuck Strouse, writing in the Broward-Palm Beach New Times yesterday, takes note of a country commisioners' vote in Broward that would have the county "give" the Florida Panthers some $86 million across the next six years. I say "give" because the money would actually come from tourism taxes, always an easy thing for county commissioners to fuck with because who really cares, right? The Panthers lose money every year as a matter of course these days. Their average attendance is among the worst in the league, and they are—along with the county—still paying off the BB&T Center. If the team were to fold, the county would be on the hook for this bill, alone. Thus, commissioners opted to subsidize the team some more (it's already received over $340 million from Broward County coffers).

Anyway, Strouse suggests that ultimately this unfortunate (ridiculous) situation should be laid at the feet of H. Wayne Huizenga, the man who bought the Dolphins in 1993, then immediately brought professional baseball and hockey to South Florida in the form of the Florida Marlins and Panthers. I'm not exactly clear on Strouse's reasoning here, but it seems to be that Huizenga started this mess and therefore should probably own it.

I guess that's fair, in a big picture sort of way. But it seems to me there is a larger cadre of villains in this story, indeed in a much larger story that encompasses all of the major sports in South Florida. Who are these villains? Why, they're the people of Broward County, of course.

Check this: the Miami Dolphins were a perennial winning team in the NFL when they played at the Orange Bowl. From 1970 (when they entered the NFL) until 1996 (the last year at the Orange Bowl), they suffered exactly two losing seasons, in 1976 and 1988. Since the move north to whatever-the-hell-the stadium-is-called-now? Seven losing seasons (soon to be eight) in nine fewer years. The Florida Panthers? They moved north to the BB&T center in 1998. Since then, they've made the playoffs just twice (and this is hockey, where everyone makes the playoffs). In their five seasons at the Miami Arena? Two trips there as well, including their run to the Stanley Cup finals. That's two in five compared to two in eighteen. Hmm...

Okay true, the Marlins made hay playing at the Dolphins' stadium. Well, they did until the Lorias came to town. Then it all went quickly to shit (after a World Series win set up prior to the Loria acquisition). They've now been playing at Marlins Park in Miami (where the Orange Bowl once stood) for only four years. The jury is still out there, I'll grant.

Then there is the Miami Heat.

Enough said.

The evidence here suggests what I and other Miamians have known all along: Broward County sucks the life out of everything it touches, especially sports teams. Not convinced? Well here's one more: the University of Miami Hurricanes. At the Orange Bowl, the Hurricanes amassed five national championships and nine conference championships. Since they moved north to the Dolphins' stadium in 2007? Goose eggs. Goose. Eggs.

Now, someone might point out that Sun Life Stadium (the current name of the Dolphins' stadium; I still call it Joe Robbie) is technically in Miami-Dade County. And this is true. But it's right on the border and is far more accessible to people from Broward than it is to people from Miami-Dade. Indeed, this is exactly why the location was chosen, as a means to supposedly tap into the supposedly huge base of supposedly huge sports fans in Broward (and in Palm Beach County). Back in the day, this point of view was all the rage. It's what led to the Panthers being exiled to Sunrise, the idea that all the real hockey fans lived up there. Miami, according to this line of thinking, was populated wholly by Cubans, African-Americans, and Rednecks, none of whom cared a whit about hockey or even football really, at least not in comparison to the people in Broward County. Yeah, right.

Hurricane Andrew played a small role here, it should be noted, as in its aftermath there was a bit of an exodus from South Dade to, mostly, West Broward (Mirimar, Sunrise, Weston, etc.). My take on that? Good riddance. Traffic was and still is bad enough down here.

Of course, it's even worse in Broward. And at least in Miami-Dade, people are actually going somewhere, to real destinations in a real city. Where are they going in Broward? To one of forty-seven Olive Gardens?

And that's the thing: Miami and Miami-Dade County have character, have culture. Sure, we're more corrupt down here than any place in North America (and most of the rest of the Americas), but we look good, we have fun. Those cardboard cut-outs up north? Come on. Every neighborhood looks the same, every house, too. And they're all bordered by identical strip-malls that feature the same shops and restaurants, over and over again.

And those cut-outs, they are the ones who really deserve the blame for the failure of the Panthers. Huizenga's problem was that he believed in them, believed in Broward County. Big mistake. Huge mistake. Look, I know there are plenty of good people in Broward, plenty of real sports fans, but the fact of the matter is that Miami is where the action is in South Florida. Always has been, always will be. It's where business gets done and where people are willing to go. The biggest mistake the Panthers, Dolphins, and Hurricanes ever made was moving north. Broward County is on the hook now for millions and millions of dollars, but that's Broward County's fault (via its commissioners, and therefore its voting public) for believing its own hype.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Republican Nomination, Trump, and the Laws of Thermodynamics

James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal took a hard look yesterday at Trump's "modest proposal," the response to it, and what this all means for the Republican contest. With regard to the proposal itself—barring any and all Muslims from entering the country—Taranto allows that it would have costs in the realm of international relations, that it's possibly unworkable, and that it's morally questionable (to say the least).

But what he doesn't do is condemn it out of hand, unlike pretty much every other commentator, journalist, and Presidential hopeful (Ted Cruz basically punted when given the opportunity to slam the proposal). Some might say Taranto is making a misstep here, that there's no reason to not condemn it out of hand, because it's just so wrong, so offensive, etc. I think, however, that Taranto is correct, that the proper way to approach the issue is to treat Trump's proposal with reasoned analysis and discussion.

And in this regard, Taranto looks at some of the proclamations about the proposal from various pundits and constitutional scholars, who seem to think the proposal would be deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Their arguments in this regard are, as Taranto notes, basically empty. So are the ones offered elsewhere by other constitutional scholars like Lawrence Tribe, who oddly cites Article VI on the matter (the "no religious test clause," which has zero bearing on immigration policy). Indeed, the plenary power the Court has granted Congress when it comes to immigration is sufficient to allow a policy such as Trump's. Of course, this would still take an act of Congress; the President could not mandate such a policy. And that is really the end of it. Congress isn't going to pass a "no Muslims allowed" bill. It just isn't.

So why all the blather here? At the end of the day, Trump is just shooting off his mouth again, right?

The problem of course is that this tactic has been paying dividends for Trump; he's still the front runner and has, until yesterday, seen his numbers continue to increase. Yesterday, following the release of the USA Today poll, something interesting happened. Take a look at the RCP polling averages. Trump is still in the lead, but he saw a bit of a drop (as did Carson, who's basically falling off of a cliff, poll-wise). And both Rubio and Cruz ticked upwards, leading to the following event, for the first time in this contest:
R + C > T
"R" refers to Rubio's support, "C" refers to Cruz's, and "T" refers to Trump's. And according to the latest averages, adding the numbers for Rubio and Cruz yields 30.3%, while Trump's number stands at 29.3%.

Why is this significant? Well, let's consider it through the prism of the Laws of Thermodynamics. The First Law states that Energy cannot be created or destroyed. So too for polling numbers: when someone loses, someone else wins (and this includes candidate "undecided"). Yeah okay, I know that's trite, but it's still worth remembering. Because Carson is going down and he's not coming back, in my opinion. Ditto for Jeb Bush. And really, everyone else, aside from Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. This is really a three horse race now, barring some major gaffe by Cruz or Rubio. And as these other candidates fade and drop out, their support has to go somewhere else. I'd argue that it's going to be dispersed mostly between Rubio and Cruz, and I'll tell you why.

Donald Trump's candidacy has been, up until this point, what amounts to an isolated system in the race. He hasn't really been running against the other candidates (apart from Carson to some extent). You can see this in the polling data. The numbers for Trump don't follow the fluctuations of the others very well at all. In contrast, there's an obvious pattern to the rise of Cruz and Rubio: as they have gone up, everyone else (apart from Trump) has gone down.

Here's the thing about isolated systems: according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy in them tends to increase. That is, they eventually slow down and fall apart, unless additional energy is supplied from outside the system. Trump maintains only by keeping people wound up. And I think he has more or less reached his maximum level of support, so all he can do is maintain. So he has to keep being extreme, he has no choice. The problem of course is that there's a limit to this as well. And we're seeing it being reached with his latest proposal.

Trump's numbers may largely hold up, well into the immediate future. But again, they are numbers that exist outside the rest of the system. Trump can't garner more support because he has nowhere to get it. In contrast, Rubio and Cruz are in a system filled with potential additional support. When they add energy to this system, they can still achieve a net benefit, rather than just maintaining their positions. It's a world of difference as compared to Trump. As we move into 2016, this is going to become apparent, in my opinion.

True enough, Trump is a master manipulator of the media (which, to be fair, is more than happy to be manipulated, if that translates into better ratings and more clicks) but lacking a pool of potential support, all he can do is keep his name in the news to placate his current supporters, nothing more. And eventually, those supporters are going to tire of hearing the same ol', same ol'. That, or Trump will cross line after line and drive them away, a little at a time.

There's a good term for this phenomenon, too: heat death.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Radical diasporas

Hisham Melhem, writing in Politico Magazine, asks the following questions:
Who are these enraged young Muslims, and why do they feel so much hatred for their native countries? How did it happen that their parents—often first-generation immigrants just trying to get along and make a buck—kept their heads down and made no trouble, while the children who were generally better off economically were lured by a suicidal ideology networked into their minds from thousands of miles away?
In the rest of the article, Melhem details the general conditions of Muslims in America and compare this to Muslims in Europe, noting that there is significant divergence here. Muslims in America are more integrated into American culture, by and large, than are Muslims in most European countries, where they tend to live in their own communities and are (in Europe)—on average—worse off, from an economic standpoint. He also makes the following excellent observations:
Some analysts have noted that the French have met their own 9/11 on November 13th. But there is one major difference. The young terrorists of 9/11 were not of America; they came from beyond the seas, and were strangers to our ways, habits and values. The November 13th terrorists, just as the terrorists of last January, are the lost children of France; they are the descendants of those immigrants who came to the Métropole decades ago from the many provinces of France’s colonial empire in mostly Africa and particularly from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. They are French citizens, but some of them are not quite of France, opting or made by necessity to inhabit a parallel society, which means that their economic and cultural assimilation is either incomplete or suspect and not welcomed by a segment of the larger population because they are Muslims, and because of their lower socio-economic conditions.
Yet, the most recent Islamic terrorist attack in the United States—in San Bernardino—indicates that such differences are not sufficient in and of themselves to stop the growth in popularity of radial Islamic views among younger Muslims in the United States.

Melham concludes his piece with some recommendations on how to address the questions he raised, recommendations which fairly call for action from both the Muslims/Mulsim communities in the United States and from the rest of the nation, from the government and its leaders:
But it is morally imperative for the president and congressional leaders to inject the right inclusive tone, into the political discourse particularly in times of adversity, to guard against the politics of exclusion, fear and demonization. Those who shape opinions and attitudes, whether in the mass media, academia or civil society at large, should hold public figures who engage in demagoguery, selective outrage and outright lies accountable; scoundrels should be called out...  
Meanwhile, Muslims should accept what took Christians and Jews a long time to accept, that their religion—their sacred texts, their prophets and the whole historic experience of the faithful—can and should be critically and rationally examined, criticized and revised...

The challenge for Muslim communities in Europe and America is similar; they cannot be in France but not of France, in America but not of America. An American Islam and a French Islam should be encouraged and embraced.
These are, I think, fair recommendations. But they are also almost trite, to some extent, as they amount to a call for everyone to "just get along." Moreover, the entirety of the piece—while a welcome and well-researched bit of calm sanity in the larger discussion—fails to place this issue in a full historical context.

That context is the quite common growth of radicalism, support for the same, and/or an overly nationalistic sentiment for the "homeland" that seems to almost always be an element of various diasporas throughout history. Radicalism in the Muslim diaspora—both in the United States, in Europe, and elsewhere—is just the latest iteration of this phenomenon.

For those unclear on the terminology here, diaspora refers to a scattering of a people whose origins—cultural, racial, ethnic—have a defined geography. Traditionally, it was used mostly in reference to the Jews, i.e. the Jewish diaspora in 18th century Europe. And there is an implied element of necessity beyond the spread of a group, as well. Sometimes—as in the case of the African diaspora in the New World—the spread is completely involuntary, while other times—as with the Irish diaspora in the United States (that began withe Irish famine in the 19th century)—it is a response to local events. Right now, the Syrian refugee crisis is creating a world-wide Syrian diaspora.

Looking back at past diasporas, again there is commonality here: support for radicalism within such communities. When it comes to the Jewish diaspora, it's history goes back a long ways, to Roman times and before. But throughout the centuries, the diaspora has always been a hotbed of support for attempts to reclaim the Promised Land, long before Israel was rebirthed in the aftermath of World War II.

Irish leaders, circa 1922 (source:
UK National Archives)
In contrast, the Irish diaspora is a far more recent thing. And when the IRA was in full bloom, fighting for Irish independence, much of its support came from the diaspora in the United States. Indeed, members of the diaspora who were born in the United States still saw themselves as Irish first. Many even went to Ireland to fight for independence, including Éamon de Valera, one of the principal leaders of the Irish struggle for independence.

It is, I think, worthwhile to note the last, insofar as we are seeing something similar today. Indeed, with regard to the Israel/Palestine conflict, we have been seeing it for decades, as members from both diasporas are heavily involved, vocally, financially, and on occasion physically. Now, we also have a more general involvement of the Muslim diaspora—sometimes a nation or ethnic-specific subgroup within it—with a number of conflicts throughout the globe, though mostly centered around ISIS.

But getting back to history and diasporas, there is also the Cuban diaspora who fled the island nation in fear of Castro's rise, various ethnic diasporas created by the Soviets (Estonians, Georgians, etc.) who continued to self-identify as members of their ethnic community, supported radicalism (in this case, "radicalism" was an antagonistic approach to the radicalism of the Soviets) and were at the forefront when these nations shook off the Soviet yoke (also true of the Chechens, by the way, whose failure to achieved statehood led to greater radicalism).

Then there is the diaspora of Native Americans within the United States, proper. As is the case for those groups mistreated by the Soviets, the case can be made here that Native Americans were wholly justified in actions they took, but that is besides the point, which is that the forced relocation of peoples here led to a rise of radicalism, from one point of view or another.

Indeed, it can be fairly said that the English—or even Christian—diaspora who settled the northern Colonies exhibited this same tendency: a turn to radicalism. Only in this case, the radicalism was dumping the idea of divine right and never really led to a need to reclaim their homeland, probably because there were too many options to offset this (like westward expansion and the their eventual ability to dominate the Native Americans through force of arms). Still, the attachment to England has never really faded and continues to this day.

And maybe that's the real nut of the problem, the core as it were: the continuous attachment of a diaspora to its place of origin, regardless of generational factors. Indeed, oftentimes, it seems that such attachment grows in future generations, rather than recedes, as was the case for the Irish and now seems to be the case for many Muslims.

An awful lot of time has been devoted to talk of how this rise of Islamic extremism has a large economic component, how it is a product of a moment when young men have limited opportunities, are living "lives of quite desperation." Yet as Melhem notes, such is not really the case for Muslims in America. Such was not the case for the Irish in America of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, either. At least not when their situations here are compared to what their situations would be back in their "homeland." In the case of the San Bernardino shooters, we're not talking about poverty-stricken, unemployed people with no other options in the least.

No, the economic component is being vastly overstated, in my opinion. The issue is ultimately tribal; it is the need for people to group themselves, to belong to a "tribe," be that tribe ethnic, religious, or nationalistic. And on its own, this isn't necessarily a horrible thing. I think, however, that the distance of the diaspora from its perceived place of origin accentuates these tribal instincts. There is a supposition of purity in the place of origin, a purity that can exist there and nowhere else. I hear it from my Cuban friends all of the time, I've heard it from Irish friends as well, and from Muslim ones.

Idealization is the real enemy here, an idealization that is buttressed by tales of the past, by story and song, by food and cultural practices. It's not that members of a diaspora are unwilling to adapt, it's that they are fixed on their identity, often need that identity to steel themselves in the face of change and adversity. Because remember, by and large the initial members did not leave just because they felt like a change; they left because they were forced to, because they had to, or because they felt they truly needed to leave their homelands. Understandably, they still want what they lost or what they imagine they lost. By and large, their children learn this same worldview. So when there is a reason to radicalize, these children are prime candidates.

The fix? I don't know that there really is one, apart from time.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Cruz v. Rubio: just what the doctor ordered

Source: TheWeeklyStandard.com
There are a lot of things one can say about Ted Cruz. Many of these things, depending on who is opining, are probably not very nice. But one thing that I think most will agree on is that Cruz has—up until quite recently—made a point of not going after his fellow Republicans in the race for the nomination. Rather, he has consistently saved all of his criticisms for the candidates on the Democrat side and for the current administration. Indeed, Cruz has generally avoided taking pot shots at even the Donald, unlike the rest of the Republican field (apart from Carson).

This tactic has, I think, served Cruz very well so far in the race. But as good old Professor Tolkien might say, the hour is late. And in that regard, Cruz has shifted gears; he's now going on the offensive against Marco Rubio, making it a point to draw distinctions between himself and the junior Senator from Florida. Rubio, of course, has responded.

This is good news for the Republican Party. Both Rubio and Cruz are still far behind Trump in the polls (and still behind Carson, but the winds of change are blowing hard there), true enough, but that's okay in my opinion. Because I think an argument on policy and the like between these two is going make something apparent that many already realize: Trump can't stand toe to toe with either Cruz or Rubio. Their arguments are over his head, beyond his skill set. Trump's "visioon" is chaotic, all over the place, apart from the pandering "make America great again" nonsense.

Really, this is a tactic that Jeb Bush would have been wise to adopt months ago: going after Rubio on policy. Of course, the problem for Bush there was the narrowness of differences between himself and Rubio. Still, trying to engage Rubio on a serious level would have, I think, given him more room to "strut his stuff," as it were. But Bush didn't do this and instead went after Rubio at a personal level. And we can see how that worked out for Bush. His candidacy is on life support. And when he finally drops out, the bulk of his supporters will simply take one step to the right and into Rubio's camp.

Cruz, however, is not Bush. I think he's savvy enough to avoid the minefield of cheap shots that the latter stepped into. No doubt, he learned from this. And I think Cruz probably also learned from Gingrich's experiences in 2012. Recall that in January of that year, Gingrich was desperately looking for traction in his race for the nomination against Romney. In Florida, Gingrich attempted to spin the contest as one mirroring that of Rubio/Crist (with Gingrich as Rubio). This was a serious, nay a grave, mistake. Rubio took exception to the comparison and with one sentence doomed Gingrich in Florida and, I think, ultimately in the contest as a whole.

Take stock of this for a moment. Rubio ended Gingrich's run for the 2102 nomination. He likely ended Bush's run for the 2016 nomination, each time with very little effort, with just a handful of words. Again, I think Cruz is well aware of all of this. True enough, this is not 2012 and Rubio is not the darling of the moment he was back then, but he still retains the same range of support, even if it is presently overshadowed by Trump. More importantly, Rubio knows how to read a moment, how to debate, and how to counter-attack. And so does Cruz.

The back and forth between the two is therefore perilous. A misstep in this regard could give the other exactly the opportunity needed and end a candidcy. Which is why it is a back and forth about serious matters, about policy and ideology. It's the sort of high-minded discussion that the Republican Party needs right now, to break up the know-nothing support for Trump. So I hope Cruz keeps at it and draws Rubio in deeper (I think Rubio is more than happy to oblige, as well).  Because I think that at the end of the day, the best possible scenario for the Republicans is a Rubio/Cruz ticket.

And the way to make this happen, the way for both Rubio and Cruz to rise to the top, is for both of them to ignore the rest of the field, to carry one as if they were the only two in the race. Slowly but surely, this will force the rest of the field—even Trump—to try to carve out their own space in the back-and-forth. But the rest of the field isn't up to the task, in my opinion. And as they try to force their way in, this will become apparent and they will, one by one, falter.

So I hope Cruz keeps after Rubio. Maybe we'll finally get something real from the Republicans. Because again, the hour is late, 2016 is almost here and it's time to get serious.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Why I still hate Rachel Green

There is a classic episode (the ninth episode of season eight) of the show Friends that centers on a Thanksgiving dinner and guest stars Brad Pitt as a childhood friend and classmate of Ross. Entitled "The One with the Rumor," Brad Pitt—playing the uncredited role of Will Colbert—comes to Thanksgiving dinner at Monica's invitation. Like Monica, Will had been quite heavy in high school but had since lost a lot of weight.

During the course of the evening, it comes out that Will blamed Rachel for his struggles with weight in high school and he and Ross (who had a secret crush on Rachel in high school) had formed the "I hate Rachel Green Club." Rachel of course is flabbergasted by the news, totally clueless as to why anyone might possibly hate her. Will reveals that his hatred was based on how horrible Rachel was to him throughout high school. Though he doesn't go into too much detail, the implications are clear: Rachel was one of the popular kids and Will was an easy target for ridicule and mockery. Other episodes support this backstory in full: Rachel was always presented as self-absorbed and snotty with an ever-present superiority complex.

Now, I know this is just a TV show, a sitcom as it were, but this aspect of the show always bugged me. There are many humorous episodes in the series, but there are also many serious moments, where the writing tries to make the characters sympathetic to some extent, to make the audience care about them. And this worked. There are many fans of the show who love the characters, who relate or want to relate to them, who felt their apparent pain through the trials and tribulations of the show's ten seasons.

Contrast this with sitcoms like Cheers, Seinfeld, or Two and a Half Men, where the characters were always there to be laughed at, were never intended to be taken seriously. Some might see this as a triumph for the series, but me, not so much. And I'll tell you why.

The characters on Friends were, by and large, obnoxious, thoughtless people. They used others, they used each other, they behaved horribly. Which of course is no different than the characters in the above three shows. The difference is, the other shows realized this; they didn't try to snooker the viewers into caring about the characters. Not so with Friends.

And as bad as all the characters in Friends were, none were worse than Rachel Green. She never stops using people, her needs always come first, and worst of all, everything works out for her in the end. She ends up with a dream job in the fashion industry after displaying no work ethic whatsoever throughout the course of the show. When working as a waitress at Central Perk (the coffee shop where the friends consistently hog all of the good seats), Rachel does zero work. Zero. She just doesn't deserve her good fortune, she never actually earns it. She's a horrible example across the board. And most of the others aren't much better (Chandler gets a little credit, maybe).

Still, Rachel is the top of the heap, when it comes to well-liked TV characters who are actually horrible people. I guess Jennifer Aniston deserves some credit in this regard, for portraying the character so well as to leave me with a palpable sense of hatred for Rachel forever, it would seem. I've watched the occasional rerun and my dislike for her has not diminished in the least. In a perfect world, Rachel would be forced to step into to the shoes of Marsha Brady for the "oh, my nose!" scene. Over. And over. And over. Gah! I hate her so much, it hurts! If Will and Ross still have room in their club, I'm signing up!

The myth of Obama the Great Speaker

In the wake of President Obama's disjointed press conference in Paris—which featured nonsensical claims about fish swimming in the streets of Miami—some columnists and others in the media have wondered if the President is losing his "gift of gab," his much-vaunted prowess at public speaking.

Since Obama was elected President—even before, really—one of the most commonly heard platitudes used to describe him was that he was a Great Orator. Not just a pretty good one, but a Great one, maybe even the Best Ever. This is something that was never said about Bush, about Obama's Republican opponents like McCain and Romney, nor even about his Democratic ones like Hillary Clinton and Biden (maybe to a lesser extent John Edwards was credited with some skill in this regard). This is not to say that all of these others suck at public speaking. They most certainly do not. And frankly, that's no surprise. People don't get to the level of a serious run at the White House without some skill in this arena, Jeb Bush notwithstanding.

But Obama, well he was and still is portrayed as a far above these other mere mortals. Witness this article from back in 2011, which purports to rank all the Presidents since 1933 on their oratory skills. It's author is Richard Greene, who has apparently instructed many powerful people on how to give great speech. Here are his rankings:
1. JFK
2. FDR
3. Obama
4. Reagan
5. Clinton
6. Lyndon Johnson
7. Richard Nixon
8. Dwight Eisenhower
9. Harry Truman
10. George H.W. Bush
11. Gerald Ford
12. Jimmy Carter
13. George W. Bush
He makes a point of drawing a line after the top five, labeling all that follow as "second tier," based on the idea that the top five were just really great. I'm betting that many other people "in the know" would offer similar rankings. Again, this point of view—that Obama is one of the greats—has been so common as to be almost a given for some time now. Indeed, many would happily accept ranking Obama even higher on this list. For his part, Greene also says this:
Barack Obama, at his best, in some ways is an even better orator than FDR or JFK and more accomplished than "The Great Communicator" Ronald Reagan, a trained actor and Bill Clinton, by far the greatest one-on-one communicator in politics, if not the history of mankind.
Wow. I mean it is sweet of Greene to not list Obama as number one outright, but the above shows how he really feels and reveals his partisan bent in all of this (as does the rest of the article, by the way). And I'm betting that now, four plus years later, Greene wouldn't hedge his bets. He'd simply put Obama at the top, based on speeches Obama has made since 2011.

Now I think it obvious that Obama can give a good speech (again, one doesn't get to this level without that skill). And I also think it obvious that he has given some great ones. But so have many other Presidents. Obama has also given some rather blah speeches. But more importantly, he has shown an inability to work effectively "off the cuff." Seriously, watch any non-scripted remarks from the President and count the number of "ums" and "ahs." He has a terrible habit in this regard. Then there's the rather petulant tone that has marked many of the President's speeches and press conferences. Some might say his petulance is understandable, but it's existence is a mark against him, when it comes to his oratory skills, any way you slice it.

Still, we're talking a high level of skill here, even if one agrees with my criticisms. But even if one doesn't, is Obama still better than Bill Clinton? Still better than Reagan? For that matter, are FDR and JFK actually better than Reagan and Clinton?

No, Obama is not better than Reagan, nor is he better than Clinton (I'll leave the FDR/JFK arguments alone). Seriously, it's not even close. Go back and look at some of the State of the Union addresses from Reagan and Clinton and compare them to Obama's. Even when the first two are saying nothing, they're doing it better than Obama by a country mile.

Again, this isn't meant to disparage Obama in the least, just to note that he is not in the same class as Reagan and Clinton. It shouldn't be that big a deal to say this, in my opinion. And yet it is. Allowing that Obama is not the greatest speaker of all time is somehow perceived as a slight or an insult by the cadres of Obama fanboys out there and by the President's sycophants in the media. From their point of view, he has to be one the greatest orators ever, just as he has to be one of the most intelligent Presidents ever.


In a word, race. As much as the President receives undue criticism because of his race (he really does), he also receives undo credit. There is this rather perverse need among many of Obama's supporters—particularly the white, upper class ones—for Obama to be special simply because he is a black American. It's not enough for him to be really smart and to be a really good speaker, he has to be the smartest and the best, period.

Really, this point of view, which in turns leads to a kind of attack dog mentality in defense of the President, is unfair to Obama as President and as a person in his own right. Moreover it's also somewhat racist, insofar as it is built around an unspoken assumption: that Obama needed to be the very best at these things in order to become President. He isn't and he didn't. He's a highly-skilled politician who used available tools to achieve the Oval Office, as was the case for most every President who came before him. But again, the fanboys don't want to hear it. Say to one of them something like "I don't think Obama is really that smart," and the retort will always be something like "He's a Harvard-trained constitutional scholar, what are you fuck-face?" Ditto for any criticisms of Obama's speaking abilities.

Again, this isn't meant to disparage the President. He's very smart. He's a very good speaker. He's just not the all-knowing genius many suppose him to be, and he's just not the greatest speaker to ever walk the face of the Earth. And he doesn't need to be.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Frogs in the sky, fish on the streets...mass hysteria!

President Obama from earlier today, speaking at the climate change summit in Paris (my boldface):
And so, you know, I think that as the science around climate change is more accepted, as people start realizing that even today you can put a price on the damage that climate change is doing -- you know, you go down to Miami and when it's flooding at high tide on a sunny day and fish are swimming through the middle of the streets, you know, that -- there's a cost to that.
Fish spilled from a truck on a road in China, not Miami
I can't believe I actually have to say this, but for anyone who is not living in South Florida, there are not fish swimming in the middle of the streets in Miami, during high tide or any other tide. There just aren't. Now, there has been at least one recent actual case of a fish being seen on a flooded street in Fort Lauderdale. For anyone who is not from the area or has not lived in South Florida, here's some shocking news: sometimes the streets flood a little. Mostly, they flood due to heavy rains and mostly, we're talking about inland streets. But streets near the ocean (or the bay), well some of them are a tad vulnerable to occasional flooding due to combinations of high tides, strong easterly winds, and rain. And by occasional, I mean a few times a year or less. Though I don't know offhand how many times in the past hundred years or so this has led to fish on the streets.

The flooding and accompanying fish detailed in the above story? Well, that happened on September 28th of this year, a notable date insofar as a "supermoon" event occurred on September 28th. Moreover, simultaneous with the supermoon, there was also a total lunar eclipse. What does that mean for us here on Earth? Simple, higher tides. Coupled with the easterly winds that were occurring on these same days (which push ocean water towards the coast), the flooding in coastal regions wasn't much of a surprise.

But that didn't stop climate change fear-mongers like Al Gore from using the event as evidence of the increased threat of climate change. I'm guessing this is where Obama got his information.

Even if this is the case, though, even if Obama or someone on his staff heard the claim first from Gore, it's not an excuse to repeat it. Exactly the opposite, in fact. If the supposition is made that flooding in South Florida is due to climate change, this needs to be investigated before being offered as a fact. Of course, Gore and then Obama went a bit farther, claiming that the flooding was significant enough to induce fish to migrate into Miami's traffic pattern (requiring some weird traffic updates on the radio and on TV, I guess), which again is just a bunch of happy horseshit, pardon my language.

And in this regard, there are a few things that are worth noting:
  1. The media is, by and large, ignoring this lie or at least trying to downplay it. Look at the piece from the Miami Herald, above. After detailing Obama's falsehood, it continues with "the claim, even if inaccurate, should not take away from the need for action in South Florida." Inaccurate? It's an outright lie. Compare the attention this has received to statements Trump has made, like his claim about Muslims in New Jersey celebrating 9-11. Need I say more?
  2. South Florida as a whole should be furious with the President. And this includes the people at the Miami Herald. Why? Talk about flooding and fish on the streets is not good for tourism, especially when the person doing the talking is the President of the United States and he is talking to an international audience. That's just asinine.
  3. Claims of outrageous weather-related phenomena are typically associated with doomsday prognosticators, i.e. snake oil salesmen. Whether it's frogs raining from the heavens or lakes catching on fire, these are the type of stories that are used to sway the gullible through the twin powers of fear and awe.
The last is worth considering, especially with regard to the manner in which climate change alarmists attack differing points of view. As I've noted many times previously, a good chunk of this crowd see things through a prism of religion: their positions are not based on facts but on dogma and anyone who questions that dogma is a heretic.

Having said that, many of the arguments I've seen or heard that supposedly disprove climate change or global warming are loads of crappola. One of my favorites is the one based on a solitary event or singular piece of information, such as "It's snowing here, it almost never snows this time of year, so climate change is hooey!" A more advanced version of this is "The mean world temperature decreased last year, so climate change is hooey!" Those aren't sound arguments. They really aren't. Now, if such things keep repeating themselves, year after, year, well that's a different story, isn't it? And it's a story the pro-climate change crowd is starting to face, insofar as climate model after climate model is failing to produce reliable predictions.

So where does that leave such people? Paradoxically, it appears to have left them with the same sorts of flawed arguments that they where once scoffing at and ridiculing: namely, pointing at singular events and saying "See? Climate change!" Fish swimming the streets of Miami is just such an argument. Even it it were true, it wouldn't be evidence of climate change as a matter of course. It would be nothing more than an isolated event that may or may not have a link to climate change (the particular case in Fort Lauderdale does not have such a link, as I have already explained."

For the climate change alarmists, this is not a good sign. It indicates they are running out of actual evidence at an alarming rate, which is of course highly ironic...

FIFA Awards update

FIFA has announced the shortlist for the Ballon d’Or, the Women's Word Player of the Year, and several other awards:
The nominees for the FIFA Ballon d’Or are, in alphabetical order: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal/Real Madrid), Lionel Messi (Argentina/FC Barcelona) and Neymar (Brazil/FC Barcelona). Meanwhile, Carli Lloyd (USA/Houston Dash), Aya Miyama (Japan/Okayama Yunogo Belle), and Célia Šašić (Germany/1. FFC Frankfurt) are in the running for the women’s award.
The final three contenders on the men's side is not a great surprise. In fact, it was about as predictable as death or taxes, since—as I noted previously—this has been a back and forth between Messi and Ronaldo for the six years running (including this one). I guess there's an outside chance that Neymar could win, but I think it highly unlikely. Messi is probably a lock at this point, even with his injuries. Personally, I think Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich and Poland) should have been in the final three, in place of Neymar. There's no question that Neymar is an incredible talent, but Lewandowski has been the best striker in the world for the past year, hands down. And on top of that, there was his record-setting five-goal outburst against Wolfsburg in September:

It's a phenomenal display of skills, missing only a headed goal, which is something for which Lewandowski is already well known.

True enough, he plays with Muller, Robben, and others. But then Neymar plays with Messi and Suarez. Of course, there something to be said for the leagues the finalists—and Lewandowski—are playing in, the Bundesliga (Germany) and La Liga (Spain). These are two of the best leagues in the world. But neither one is the English Premier League, which remains far and away the most competitive league in the world, top to bottom, in my opinion (and in the opinion of most football experts, as well). Beautiful goals, hat tricks, and thrilling ball control (the bread and butter of players like Messi and Ronaldo) are much harder to come by in the Premier League, with it's far superior cadre of defenders and two-way players.

But I digress. Again, expect a Messi win here, with Ronaldo in second, and Neymar bringing up the rear.

With regard to the women, well I have to admit that I'm a little but surprised to see Miyama in the final three. My predictions for the final three again:
Third Place: Hope Solo—a difficult call, because Henry is just so consistent (and good), especially at the club level, and because Angerer has had a great year in the net. But Solo had a better one and dominates club games in an almost Neuer-esque fashion. That said, Solo's off-the-field problems may end up costing her here, so I wouldn't really complain if Henry or Angerer finished third. Solo would have no one to blame but herself.  
Second Place: Célia Šašic—this was a much easier call, because Šašic is a force on the pitch. She retired in July, but even without the additional goals she might have accumulated, she was unquestionably the best striker of 2015.  
First Place: Carli Lloyd—in my view, this is a no-brainer and Lloyd should be a lock for the award. She has really blossomed as a player in the last couple of years, perhaps owing to the need for leadership on the USWNT, as some older players retired or saw less playing time. And this particular year, her WWC performance was simply unparalleled.
Allowing that Solo's off-the-field problems may have had an impact here, I can't see the preference for Miyama over Angerer. That said, as I previously noted, Miyama is a great player on both ends of the pitch and through the middle, as well. And she is a great ambassador for the sport, enjoys the respect of teammates and foes alike, and really has no negatives to speak of. So, fair enough.

That said, she's a distant third here in my opinion, as would have been the case for Solo or Angerer. This contest is between the UEFA Player of the Year and the WWC Golden Ball winner. And I'm still thinking the edge is to the latter, to Carli Lloyd. Come January 11th, we'll find out.