Friday, November 26, 2010

'Glee' Sucks

Today is Black Friday, the day we usually reserve for empty condemnation of consumer culture, usually delivered via something like an iPhone, while watching a college football game brought to us by a beer, designed to make administrations and coaches money and in no way meant to determine which institution has the superior academic program. Then we do half of our Christmas shopping on deep discount on Amazon.com, or we sneak off to the Levi's outlet, getting half-off on the jeans that accentuate our butts and/or packages.

I was searching for a metaphor for protestations of social value ladled over vacantly hedonistic self-indulgence, of prepackaged moral fiber disguising spun-sugar emptiness, and immediately any point I had about Black Friday was derailed by my realizing, "Oh, I'm actually thinking about Glee."

I've written before about Glee, but not in any detail. There's plenty to object to, about the show, but I was primarily stunned that it was nominated for an Outstanding Comedy Emmy despite not actually being funny. I wrote:

Friday, November 19, 2010

An Open Letter to Famous Russian Translator Richard Pevear

Dear Mr. Pevear,

Sir, please find enclosed the content of your latest email to me. Simply put, this is inexcusable. It has gone too far.


I admit to being fooled by the first one. A hyperlink modestly titled Petersburg could very well have directed me to a new translation of Bely's novel. Honestly, the double-entendre didn't even occur to me at the time. A subsequent email entitled "Bang Britzka" appeared similarly innocuous.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The AL Cy Young Award: Time for Dumb End-of-Year Statistics

Note: I wrote most of this a month ago, but work and liveblogging the postseason delayed my getting back to it. The AL Cy Young Award winner will be announced later today, meaning this is the last day some of this piece applies. Apologies for tardiness.

The days leading up to and following the World Series can provide the worst part of the baseball journalism season, when daily beat writers know that their teams have been eliminated from contention, or the "hot stove league" hasn't heated up enough yet to be plausibly interesting. Without games left to play and many possible outcomes, they turn their attention to seasonal awards to fill out column space, telling feel-good stories about breakout players, ginning up nonexistent controversies or ideas "so crazy they just might work" to create dialogue and, most commonly, ladling out great chunks of conventional wisdom.

Easily the best example of the latter this year comes in the debate over the American League Cy Young Award. The leading candidates for best pitcher in the league are the Yankees' CC Sabathia and the Mariners' "King" Felix Hernandez, with some votes for the Tampa Bay Rays' David Price thrown in. This shouldn't even be a contest. King Felix beats these other two guys in every single significant metric you can think of: earned run average, walks and hits given up per inning pitched, total strikeouts, strikeouts per nine innings pitched, adjusted ERA, adjusted wins, win probability, wins above replacement ("WAR," i.e. how many more wins did he contribute than a replacement pitcher) and total innings pitched and batters faced. These last two are important. A pitcher who comes into a game and strikes out one batter and then retires would have flawless statistics. That King Felix put up these superlative statistics despite facing the most batters and pitching the most innings of any starter puts his statistical dominance beyond doubt.

If you don't have a baseball brain, that is — which is actually a gut, the point from which true baseball originates. Baseball is gutty, gassy. It's why they serve hot dogs in all the stadiums. Anyway, this distinction matters, because a plurality (if not majority) of professional baseball writers, and thus awards voters, still evaluate players from the gut or by using statistics that don't isolate player performance. This is where the arguments for Sabathia and Price come in. Baseball writers note that Sabathia led the league in games won, with 21, while Hernandez had a paltry 13. But this ignores three pretty big factors:

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

National Novel Writing Month: 'In the Beginning Was the All-Spark Cube'

Explain to anyone what National Novel Writing Month is, and there's a good chance that person will say, "Oooh, yeah. That idn't good." Getting people writing and thinking harder about story and characterization is a good thing and, longterm, should only engender a stronger appreciation for literature. Undoubtedly, the organizers of "NaNoWriMo" have their hearts in the right place. That said, meeting their goals via a project that demands 50,000 words in 30 days from people who may have gone years without writing more per day than an email yields more accidentally funny stuff than anything else.

Among people who take writing seriously, who realize that it's work, the default responses range from weak encouragement to discreet eyerolling. If you're looking for a more substantive response, it's likely to be a sincere wish that all the attention for NaNoWriMo could be directed at, say, funding the sort of community-college creative writing workshops that might actually employ people who take writing seriously.

In the short term, though, sympathetic teasing or mockery dominate the reactions. (I asked for a blurb from a published author I know — one who both participated in NaNoWriMo and who is patient enough to have enjoyed teaching high school — and even his politely begging off contained the concession that it yields a lot of terrible work as well as people who take it way too seriously and start self-identifying as "Author.") NaNoWriMo pieces tend toward self-insertion fan-fic, the genre-heavy and stereotypical. There are girls rewriting the story of their doomed college relationship; only this time it works out. There are boys turning themselves into crime-fighters who have sex. Where the sexes meet, there are wizards and aliens and monocled men in morning coats with pneumatic arms getting down to lovemaking in the Babbage-Omicron Zeppelin.

Monday, November 15, 2010

'In the Graveyard of Empires'

Poor Seth G. Jones. He's got to feel like he's got the worst timing on the planet. He began researching In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan when the conflict was mostly absent from the American consciousness, the ugly older warchild from a failed first marriage of terror and overreaction.

By the time his book was published in 2009, however, the 2008 American election and overconfidence in the Iraqi "surge" had returned Afghanistan to the forefront of military and anti-terror debate. Instead of having the established book that armchair policy wonks would rush to buy to sound credible when joining the conversation, his text seemed like another voice suddenly added to an existing conversation.

Worse still, his thesis for correcting American errors in Afghanistan relies heavily on current counterinsurgency theory, which not only met sharp criticism prior to and during "the surge," but which increasingly fell out of favor even with conservative pundits like George Will. Not only had he lost the chance to be speaking out about an overlooked war, he was now addressing it in terms of strategic policy that was losing the initiative against domestic opposition.

As if a final insult, in 2010, with a paperback edition and an expanded afterword, Jones and other Afghanistan experts were blindsided by the Wikileaks Afghan data, 92,000 documents that would necessarily call into question the conclusions of every "Afghan War" history preceding their release. To put this in perspective, the Pentagon Papers irrevocably changed the historiography of the Vietnam war with only 7,000 pages of information. The Wikileaks papers comprise 85,000 more documents, to say nothing of individual page counts.

Seth G. Jones's book is a lot like the nation it's about: progressively and relentlessly fucked. Although, to be fair, he has brought some of it on himself.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Stu Scott and The Ultimate Hustler

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching Monday Night Football and got a phone call from a buddy. I paused the DVR and tried to cheerily say hello when my eye caught the TV screen, and I started laughing uncontrollably. I could hardly get a word out and eventually settled for taking a picture of the screen and texting it to my friend.

As you can guess from the title, the screen froze on an image of ESPN personality Stu Scott. I wasn't laughing at his eye. I don't enjoy making fun of it; it's just a thing, a condition so normal by now that I think of Thom Yorke as having a Stu Scott eye. There are other things to mock Stu for, like thinking that he would be a great Sportscenter anchor not by following Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann's lead and writing witty copy that fans turned into catchphrases, but rather by skipping the wit and fan parts, deciding on catchphrases himself and then running them into the ground. No, what I was laughing at was his huge, fabulously repulsive tie.

After I got off the phone, I shared this picture with other contributors to (and friends of) this site. Some people saw to it that a few eye jokes made their way into the piece. As a guy named The Bi Bandit put it: "[Given] Scott's tendency to say booya I'd like to encourage that stray football [that injured his eye] to maim harder in the future. But I feel really bad that I'm still laughing about a guy getting his eye all fucked up from a football-throwing machine." Agreed.

Still, that didn't stop anyone. Enjoy. (Click to embiggen.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Good Riddance, Joe Morgan; or, 'We Won't Really Be Safe Until We're Sure the Head Has Died'

On Monday, ESPN announced that it would not invite Jon Miller and Joe Morgan back for a 21st season as play-by-play and color-commentary men for their flagship baseball show, Sunday Night Baseball. Response across blogs and message boards ran the gamut from celebratory to orgasmic. Wishing that Joe Morgan would somehow please shut up has been common practice amongst fans for nearly a decade, to the extent that I'm sure some enterprising viewer has tried to deliver a pizza to the announce booth to contrive a way to at least temporarily stuff Morgan's word hole.

Morgan exemplifies old-school baseball thought. For intelligent and progressive fans, he's an antique impeding smart new approaches to understanding the game. For those afraid of change, for traditionalists, for the incurious, he's a relic that must be preserved, locked in the booth and left to talk until he dies. Even then his body should be encased in lucite, some tiny Easter Island head monument to calling the game the right way: gritty, devoid of senses, wrong. Naturally, it didn't take long for the defenders of the old school to lament his release. Because I have both cool friends and awesome readers, it also didn't take long for a guy named Nate to pass along a link to a truly disastrous piece of sports editorial.

The author in question is Milton Kent, one of those poor sorts saddled with two first names that could be read forward or backward and sound lame either way. Rounding out the bookishly forlorn picture his name conjures is the fact that under his byline he's listed as "National Reporter." It's just a sad distinction made on a major website, so unnecessary that it seems more like an affirmation than anything else. It brings to mind Wile E. Coyote holding out his business card labeled, "Super Genius," or those sorts of waterproofed pants that toddlers wear, the ones with names like "Big Boy Pants." Milton Kent is a big boy now. He's readed all over the America by grownups. If only he'd aimed his editorial at them as well.

When he sent in the link, Nate asked for only one thing: "Please go after this guy." With pleasure.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Profiles in Florida: Countdown to Rick Scott

Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott is entertaining. The man's career is so defined by devouring hospitals, he sometimes fittingly resembles Leonard Betts, the X-Files character who lived off cancer. Other times he looks like a loose-necked alien that someone stuck in an ill-fitting latex man suit that he's only recently learned to operate. But it's when you look closely at him that his value emerges. Even by the noxiously cynical standards of Florida politics, Scott's candidacy offers something uniquely imperious, baseless and stupid.

First, notice his campaign slogan: change. Virtually every candidate for office in America offers some riff on this word, if not hope, progress, honor, etc. Scott's campaign, however, promises change from "Washington" and "Obama," two things that have nothing to do with Florida and against which he primarily seems to be running. Opposing them is literally his biggest response to Florida's problems. He will address problems ranging from crippling budget shortfalls, collapsing property values and a public school system best described as "massively goddamn thunder-fucked" through a comprehensive program of directing formidable mind-beams against the President and the general D.C. Metro area. Duck and cover, beltway elitists.

Scott also pledges change by governing with Republican values and running the state like a business. Florida has had a Republican governor since 1998 and a Republican-controlled House since 1996. What's more, the Florida GOP and GOP Lite — viz. Florida's fiscally conservative Democrats, like his opponent Alex Sink — have attempted to run the state like a business for two decades. As is the case whenever conservatives run government like a business, they have succeeded, assuming their intended destination was "into the ground." Republicans run their precious government-business things like those dot.com bubble guys ran their insubstantial vaporware companies. They produce nothing, make a lot of loud, aspirational noises about ideas; then eventually someone does due diligence on the books; it turns out they've been bankrupt for decades, and they burned the petty cash on fancy chairs and coke.