Ryan Lizza’s excellent new piece in the New Yorker examines a series of memos that underscore some of the tough choices President Obama made in his first term.
An early passage caught my eye:
According to the political scientists Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who have devised a widely used system to measure the ideology of members of Congress, when Obama took office there was no ideological overlap between the two parties…Polarization also has affected the two parties differently. The Republican Party has drifted much farther to the right than the Democratic Party has drifted to the left. Jacob Hacker, a professor at Yale, whose 2006 book, “Off Center,” documented this trend, told me, citing Poole and Rosenthal’s data on congressional voting records, that, since 1975, “Senate Republicans moved roughly twice as far to the right as Senate Democrats moved to the left” and “House Republicans moved roughly six times as far to the right as House Democrats moved to the left.” In other words, the story of the past few decades is asymmetric polarization.
The authors to whom Hacker refers have a webpage I’ve been perusing, that shows some interesting data linking income inequality and immigration rates to increased polarization throughout history. Three graphs to note are the overall polarization graph as well as the graph showing the harder ideological swing the House Republicans have taken recently and the corresponding graph for the Senate. The three graphs refer to the liberal / conservative divide over economic policy.
I often hear friends bemoan the false balance the media creates between the two parties and the liberal / progressive corollary that “the other side does it worse.” I do think conservatives are generally better at creating, distributing and adopting messages for media consumption. There are a lot of reasons for that, but maybe an overlooked but important one is that they benefit from a more uniformly ideological set of elected officials.
In any case, I do think we benefit from having more moderates in power.
Turbo Tax saves me hours of work, confusion and eye strain every year when I do my taxes. But using tax preparation software always leaves me with the uneasy feeling that companies are making a buck off the government’s failure to make tax filing easy or intuitive.
How hard is it for the average citizen to file his or her own taxes? In 2008, nearly 58 percent of individual tax returns were professionally prepared. And a 2005 Government Accountability Office report estimated that Americans spend $107 billion complying with the tax code.
Unfortunately, the tax preparation industry has a perverse incentive to keep tax filing difficult. For instance, in 2007 Intuit (worth $5 billion today) and HR Block ($4 billion) actively lobbied against allowing Americans to file taxes online. Unless, of course, taxpayers did so through tax preparation companies like Intuit and HR Block.
That’s a pretty crass move, even for corporate lobbyists. And I imagine if the IRS ever seriously considered creating their own easy-to-use tax preparation software or web forms, the entire tax preparation industry would fight it.
This year, I’m going to pay Turbo Tax $29.95 for a federal return and probably an additional $36.95 for a state return. Do I save more because I use Turbo Tax? Probably. The software takes me through income reporting and deductions in a clear, methodical fashion. I’m sure I would have missed some deductions if I had to do my taxes on my own.
But more importantly, I would have missed a couple hours of my life. I loathe the idea of filling out the IRS’s little boxes and following cryptic instructions, such as this 16-page guide for writing off the interest I paid on my mortgage. In Turbo Tax, I answer a few question and the software does the obtuse “Subtract line 8 from box 3B” work for me.
But still, that’s $70 of “my money” going to Turbo Tax to help me navigate something the government has made too complicated.
Easy-to-use tax forms — and software — should be a basic government service. If we, as citizens, are handing the government thousands of our own dollars, the least the government can do is make that process as painless as possible.
Further, I’m sure the pain and confusion of paying taxes contributes to people’s dislike and distrust of government. Politicians and agencies interested in burnishing the public’s esteem for government, especially the federal government, would do well to focus on making the act of paying our taxes just a little better.
From the perspective of corporations such as Koch Industries that are keenly interested in blocking federal progress on addressing (or even acknowledging) climate change, their strategy is simple: target part of the base of at least one major political party and make them more dismissive of climate change. From their perspective, getting just five to 10 percent of the American public on board with their agenda is a win because those minorities can have outsize impact in low-turnout primaries.
Through investments in a variety of front groups and heavy spending on campaign contributions, they’ve been able to flood a narrow and strategic zone with anti-science messages about climate change. Specifically, they’ve targeted the Tea Partiers, who far and away are more likely to be dismissive of climate science than other Republicans.
Self-identified Tea Partiers are also much more likely to tune into Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, sometimes exclusively. A former Limbaugh staffer works for a leading climate denial non-profit and regularly pumps info into the show. Fox News is far more likely to interview climate deniers than people who accept the science and even its news department has issued directives urging reporters to inaccurately report on climate science. That said, the organization is not a monolith and there have been some good examples of climate change interviews and reporting there.
But from the perspective of the companies and ideological groups that want to block action, pumping resonant messages about creeping socialism, environmentalism and Al Gore into the conservative media creates a cohesive (but scientifically inaccurate) memeplex that feeds on itself. By memeplex, I mean a set of beliefs that have, among other things, built-in defense mechanisms that let people ignore conflicting memes. So, for instance, even though scientists universally say human-induced climate change is occurring, the memeplex also contains the assertion that scientists are making it all up. Accordingly, climate deniers have invested increased time and attention to beating up on individual researchers to put a face on that argument. While those attacks are morally reprehensible and simply wrong, they serve the deniers’ agenda well.
By expanding and deploying this memeplex, flooding specific media with flawed arguments, and capturing a small, but vocal sliver of the engaged electorate, the climate deniers have moved acceptance or rejection of climate science findings from a political signifier to a classic litmus test for many Republican candidates. And given our special system of checks and balances, a divided government gives them the stalemate on broad climate policy they want.
How the strategy distorts the rest of the debate
Roberts notes the relationship this strategy has to the Overton window. The extremists can make wild claims in one corner — for instance, there is a vast and shadowy conspiracy of climate scientists — thus allowing someone who wants to maintain some appearance of moderation, such as a presidential candidate who eventually needs to run in a general election, say something like, “We just can’t be sure how much human activity is contributing to climate change.” In the absence of the extreme voices, such a statement would seem very wrongheaded. After all, it stands in direct contradiction to what decades of observational data and our own National Academy of Sciences has to say. But in comparison to people who say the Earth is cooling and climate change is a United Nations plot, such ambivalent statements sound reasonable to the uninitiated and are rarely newsworthy.
And this year, in particular, deniers have taken to classic propaganda techniques, labeling anyone who even breathes an accepting word about climate science an “alarmist.” Newt Gingrich has never been a huge advocate for seriously addressing climate change, yet climate deniers have claimed he is just another “alarmist” in an attempt to paint him into a corner and intimidate other politicians into distancing themselves from the issue.
I’ve also noticed far more references to climate scientists as “priests” in a “movement.” Most scientists find that idea weird and a little laughable. But it’s another example of climate deniers trying to paint them into a corner, labeling any scientist who is simply doing his or her job collecting and analyzing data about climate change another “alarmist.”
There are a lot of Republicans who are perturbed by the anti-science coming from some of their colleagues but who haven’t spoken out about it. Certainly, ex-members such as former House Science Committee Chairman Sherry Boehlert have been quite vocal about the key role science plays in fostering innovation and economic growth and the unacceptable consequences of science denial. They have the freedom to speak their minds without worry for the shift in attitude among the “dismissive” climate deniers have brought about over the past several years.
Many Republicans who are currently in office remain silent, fearful probably of bringing up an issue that splits the party and invites a primary challenge from the extremists. The National Journal found as much in a recent survey of House and Senate Republicans on climate science. Most of them refused to answer basic questions about their take on whether or not human-induced climate change is real, including House Speaker John Boehner. “The speaker’s job is to maintain unity in a caucus constantly on the verge of fracturing and to also try to increase his party’s majority in 2012,” Coral Davenport and her colleagues wrote. “His advisers fear that taking a clear position on climate change could crack the caucus in two and stop the cash flow from the biggest campaign money machines.”(I sincerely hope National Journal will expand its excellent survey to Democrats and independents. These sort of evaluations should be non-partisan and I suspect they’d find some chirping crickets on the other side of the aisle, too.)
That second reason — campaign money machines — is important, too. Energy companies are among the top contributors to candidates and oil and coal interests dominate the sector’s political spending. And it’s pretty obvious by looking at which members of Congress their money goes to that their strategic focus is on Republicans, just as many of these same companies have invested in the Tea Party as a way of influencing Republicans.
The unfortunate reality: climate keeps changing, regardless of our political beliefs
Unfortunately, the climate deniers’ strategic chickens are coming home to roost as communities grapple with how to respond to a changing climate. Recently, the Washington Post highlighted one consequence in a coastal Virginia community dealing with the prospect of sea-level rise. A public planner who is looking to prepare for climate change at the municipal level, found himself targeted by a Tea Party group that was offended by the idea of even recognizing that climate change might affect their own community. He said he’s been called “a dupe for the [United Nations]” a talking point right out of the climate denier playbook.
Unfortunately, planning and infrastructure decisions made today need to take sea-level rise, changes in precipitation, and other climate-related factors into account, regardless of whether or not Congress does anything to dramatically reduce the emissions that are driving modern climate change.
The cynical strategy of the fossil fuel industry and the politicians who have gone along with it aren’t just defaulting on our future by ignoring climate change; they’re hurting the very communities they claim to represent. And the local groups targeted with climate denial messages are now taking their jaundiced view of climate science to planning meetings — just as some others have taken it to school boards — and are trying to undermine efforts to offer long-term protection for their own homes, their families and their neighbors.
That fact should make the “alarmed” even more so and perhaps provides an opening for making people care more about this issue. Too many of our political leaders are letting the industries primarily responsible for climate change and the ideological extremists they support hold our future hostage. They’re fiddling out an anti-science tune while the Southwest burns and the glaciers melt.
There is also much room for more conservatives to speak out. To extend Roberts’ argument a bit, more conservative voices speaking out about climate change can help encourage other conservatives to end their silence on the issue and discourage some who might consider embracing climate denial. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a Tea Party darling no less, embraced climate science even while he critiqued climate policy.
Having worked for a Republican member of Congress from New Jersey (Jim Saxton), I know Garden State politicians recognize the special role the shore plays in the state’s economy. A threat that coastline is viewed as existential in many communities.
At Commentary, Kenneth Silber advanced an argument he thinks might resonate with a conservative audience: get rid of some payroll taxes and make up the revenue with carbon taxes.
We need more ideas like that. Both sides should understand that science presents us with problems — whether it’s lead contamination, tobacco smoking and lung cancer, or climate change — and that denying the reality of that science should never be an option. Both sides should be willing to come to the table with competing views on climate change policy, but a shared understanding of the science.
That will take more conservatives shifting the window back toward the middle to include reasonable reactions to the challenges of climate change. And it will take more of the “alarmed” making it clear to their representatives that neither climate denial nor silence in the face of a changing climate are acceptable responses.
I’ve watched HBO’s incredible series The Wire three times now.
That’s about 186 hours of screen time. And it was worth every minute.
Some reflections below and — fair warning — spoilers abound.
Go-Through One: Wait, What Just Happened?
The first time it was about the plot. Who would live and who would die? As my friend James has pointed out, the series truly hooks the viewer in the first season, when Kima Greggs is shot. The constant threat of peril continues as Stringer Bell, Bodie Broadus and Frank Zebotka meet their makers. In the series’ most intense standoff, Omar Little and Brother Muzone threaten to kill each other but work together instead. Overall, we watch dozens die and hear of hundreds more killed.
The Baltimore of The Wire is a war zone. And we are left with little satisfaction when the police put the bracelets on anyone. Avon Barksdale, Wee-Bey Brice, and Marlo Stanfield see jail as an extension of their street lives. In their world, jail time is comprised only of “The day you go in and they day you come out.” Though Dennis Wise (Cutty) puts the lie to that later.
The police characters experience “career death” over and over again as they lose and regain positions of power. McNulty goes to the boat and returns, just as Cedric Daniels winds up in a bland processing office before being given a command again. Carcetti moves up the ranks, Kima toys with different lines of police work and we watch as they all struggle to find their place in the world.
Go-Through Two: Yep, He Really Just Did That
The second time, it was about the characters. How were they changing and what was motivating their choices? Jimmy McNulty earns our admiration for his dogged police work and our contempt as we realize how disruptive he is to everyone around him. He finds peace for a while, but nearly breaks our hearts (and Beadie’s). Maybe he finds redemption in the end. But by the second run-through of the series, it’s a little harder to see him being happy, largely due to the absurdity of season five’s plot. By the third run-through, McNulty’s actions in the final season seem very much out of character (as do Lester Freamon’s and a few others).
Perhaps the most meaningful transformation comes to Roland Pryzbylewski. Prez is introduced to us as a misfit cop who shouldn’t be trusted with a gun. But Lester takes him under his wing and finds he has “a talent for the paper trail.” Prez’s judgment, it seems, is weak. But his mind is strong.
Prez’s true turnaround comes in the second season when his father-in-law Stan Valchek tries to remove him from the unit investigating the docks. When Valcheck calls Prez a “shit bird,” Prez snaps and sucker punches him. Our hearts leap for joy. Valcheck, after all, is an asshole. And Prez finally stands up to him and becomes his own man.
Of course, we’re crushed later when Prez accidentally kills a fellow officer. We know he means well. The poor guy just shouldn’t be out on the street with a gun. He should be in an office decoding drug dealer communications.
We watch as Prez struggles to take on the responsibility of teaching. By season five, we see him with a beard, symbolic perhaps of aging and gaining wisdom and experience. He seems far more in control and perhaps has found his place in the city.
In many ways, The Wire’s most complex character is Tommy Carcetti, though the story of a politician who loses his way is certainly a well-worn one. Its hard for us to tell if he’s acting for his own self interest or the good of his constituents. He starts out trying to wear the mantle of a reformer. We see him grill the police and try to get them to do better work. But as he decides to run for mayor, we see the first signs that Tommy is out there for Tommy. He withholds news he is running from his office-mate Tony Gray. And more heavy handidly, we see him engaging in vapid coitus atop a bathroom vanity with someone who is not his wife while he stares at himself in a bathroom mirror. Shades of American Psycho.
Eventually, as the city crumbles around him, Carcetti displays an incredible ability to convince himself that doing the right thing for him also happens to be the best thing for Baltimore. Eventually he decides the best thing he can do is run for governor to help the city from Annapolis. His endless cycles of self-justification leave us with a view of Carcetti that is far emptier than what we start out with, but we never sense outright malice of selfishness from him.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning a few characters who don’t evolve and earn our disgust or love with their consistency.
Drug lawyer Maurice Leavy doesn’t change. He is the most irredeemable character in The Wire. His motivation seems to be money and some modicum of power. We never see his home life and never get a chance to find out how he sleeps at night.
I would argue that Cedric Daniels’ character doesn’t change. He remains loyal and honest and lives his life with a clarity of purpose. The same is largely true for Bunny Colvin. Their jobs and even their families change, but they remain, at heart, good men.
Does Omar Little change? I think so. He starts out just trying to make a living. Granted, he chooses to do so by robbing drug dealers, but we learn throughout the series that Omar lives by a code. That code makes him face increasingly difficult choices. He won’t put a gun on a civilian, he says what he means, and he is, if nothing, reliable. But Omar eventually becomes obsessed with taking down Barksdale’s organization then Stanfield’s, ultimately leading to his demise.
And Omar does slip once. He promises Bunk no more bodies when Bunk springs him from jail. But later, in his quest to take down Stanfield, he kills Savino. Unlike other instances in which Omar kills quickly, he pauses before shooting Savino, and even considers letting him go before pulling the trigger. This is the only time Omar breaks his word. He doesn’t pay for it with his life — at least not directly. But he is shot dead shortly thereafter. Perhaps, in the jaundiced moral universe of The Wire, this is his punishment for going back on his word.
Go-Through Three: “Giving a Fuck When It Ain’t Your Turn”
The third time, it was about the institutions. What was pushing the characters in the world and institutions they inhabit? And ultimately, I found this to be the most interesting and satisfying level on which to appreciate The Wire.
The bureaucracy of the police system is self-evident, with their COMSTAT meetings and the constant shuffling between drab cubicles. But it also shows itself within the culture of the drug dealers. In the series’ first episode, William Rawls’ dressing down of McNulty for going to a judge is neatly juxtaposed with Avon Barksdale criticizing D’Angelo for costing them time and money by murdering someone.
Later, of course, Stringer introduces formal bureaucracy to the dealers. This leads to one of the show’s most devastatingly funny lines when a young dealer takes Stringer’s copy of Robert’s Rules of Order too literally. Stringer snaps a notepad from the young man, admonishing him not to take minutes on a “criminal fucking conspiracy.”
The second season introduces us to a culture in decline at the docks. (And we see first-hand the bureaucratic squabbling among law enforcement agencies over who has responsibility for the dead bodies that wind up in a container there.) The fourth season teaches us that schools are an institution, but that the streets the kids inhabit are a more powerful but informal one. The fifth season’s treatment of journalism as an institution is a caricature. Perhaps series creator David Simon was simply too close to subject matter and had some scores to settle. Nevertheless, we see the institutional pressures that drive the newspaper to value prizes and blind careerism over the truth.
Lessons from the Third Go-Through: Being Reasonable and Unreasonable
The characters in The Wire face a dilemma elegantly captured by George Bernard Shaw in 1903: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.” Shaw’s warning and inspiration follows: “Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
There is no better contrast in the series between the reasonable and the unreasonable than in the relationship between McNulty and his sometimes supervisor Sergeant Jay Landsman. After McNulty goes to Judge Phelan to secure the resources he wants to pursue the Barksdale drug operation, Landsman warns McNulty, ‘When they ask you where you don’t want to end up, detective; and they will ask you, don’t tell them.’ Later, when Rawls asks McNulty where he doesn’t want to end up, poor Jimmy is indeed tossed to the boat.
When Freamon and Bunk discover the bodies in the vacant houses, Landsman is the one who warns them to hold off on reporting the discovery until the mayor’s office signs off on them publicly revealing dozens of new murders.
When Kima joins homicide, Landsman tells her that the department isn’t fooling around when it comes to murders. The bosses know their names, he says.
We might come to despise Landsman for his institutional laziness if he wasn’t so damned funny. From reading a porn magazine in front of the visiting mayor-elect, to warning us that a clean desk is “a sign of a sick mind,” Landsman seems to take joy in his role as an arbiter between Homicide and the bosses. His eulogy for Ray Cole and his retirement speech “eulogy” for McNulty are among the series’ most memorable lines:
We are police. So no lies between us. He wasn’t the greatest detective and he wasn’t the worst. He put down some good cases and he dogged a few bad ones. But the motherfucker had his moments. Yes, he fucking did. You remember the Mississippi extradition? The arson murders? He brought that case home. And the triple at the after-hours over on Hudson Street…that was Ray Cole at his best. And Fayette Street in ’93, the drug wars. He took a lot of hot corners and cooled them. Yes, indeed. He won as much as he lost. Much as any of us. Did he piss off a wife or three? No fucking doubt. I think the last one actually kind of got used to him, thank God. Did he say the wrong shit now and then? Did he bust balls and cheat on his taxes and forget to call his mother and fuck the wrong broad for the wrong fucking reason every now and then? Who fucking doesn’t? Christ! Was he as full of shit as every other sad-sack motherfucker wearing a badge of Baltimore City Police? Abso-fucking-lutely. His shit was as weak as ours, no question. But Ray Cole stood with us…all of us…in Baltimore…working, sharing a dark corner of the American experiment. He was called. He served. He is counted. Old King Cole.
And for McNulty:
He gave us thirteen years on the line. Not enough for a pension, but enough for us to know that he was, despite his negligible Irish ancestry, his defects of personality and his inconstant sobriety and hygiene, a true murder police. Jimmy, I say this seriously. If I was laying there dead on some Baltimore street corner, I’d want it to be you standing over me, catching the case. Because, brother, when you were good, you were the best we had.
Landsman sees the full picture of the police bureaucracy and adapts himself to it. He sees his role, those of his detectives and is the one among them best equipped to say goodbye to the ones they lose.
McNulty sees the whole system, too, but rages against it. He is constantly the unreasonable man.
Early in season one, when McNutly decides to pursue the Barksdale organization, Bunk admonishes him for “giving a fuck when it ain’t your turn.” More than once, as his investigations are delayed, defunded and deprioritzied, McNulty wonders aloud what it would be like to “work in a real police department.”
Daniels eventually gets McNulty’s number. In a meeting, McNulty calls Rawls “an asshole.” Daniels informs him that, “to you, everyone who gets in your way is an asshole.” McNulty can do nothing but stare glumly, acknowledge Daniels’ point, and move on.
Watching McNulty operate is a bit like watching someone cursing the brick wall into which they insist on running. Freamon questions why he keeps doing it. He tells him the cases ultimately don’t matter. That when he finally catches Stringer, there will be no “Jimmy McNulty Day parade.”
But McNulty is deeply troubled by his omniscient ability to see everything wrong with the institution around him and his crippling inability to do anything that can change it. Even in a sort of victory, McNulty sees only defeat: His reaction to Stringer’s assassination is to lament the fact that Stringer didn’t know McNulty was about to catch him.
In the end, McNulty is inhabiting Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” where he spends his life “waiting for a moment that just don’t come.” As Beadie tells him, the only people who will ever be there for him, in the end, are his family, if he chooses them over his police work. McNulty, at least, receives his detective’s wake while he’s still breathing.
In contrast to McNulty’s apathy, Frank Zebotka is perhaps the only character in The Wire who truly believes in the institution to which he belongs. He lives for his union and eventually dies for it, after cheating, stealing and lying for it, too. But Frank ultimately realizes, far too late, that he is really fighting for the past. He and his colleagues see the future: machines rather than checkers loading and unloading cargo.
He laments the lost past in The Wire‘s most poignant line: “You know what the trouble is, Brucey? We used to make shit in this country. Now we’re just sticking our hands into the next guy’s pockets.”
Bodie Broadus also has a loyalty to his institution. But he works his way up the Barksdale ranks only to see that institution destroyed. Still, he takes in Wee-Bay’s son Naymon out of loyalty and remains in touch with Slim Charles and other former Barksdale gang members. He eventually capitulates to Marlo Stanfield and his assassins, watching his friends die for even the suggestion of betraying Stanfield’s operation. When Little Rick’s body is removed from one of the vacants, Bodie becomes an unreasonable man, screaming out his condemnation of the Stanfield operation. But no one listening is in power to change anything.
Later, McNulty tries to flip Bodie. Over sandwiches in a park, with a king-like statue overlooking them, he tells McNulty he feels betrayed:
I feel old. I been out there since I was 13. I ain’t never fucked up a count, never stole off a package, never did some shit that I wasn’t told to do. I’ve been straight up. But what come back? Hmm? You think if I get jammed up on some shit, they’d be like, “All right, yeah. Bodie been there. Bodie hang tough. We got his pay lawyer. We got a bail.” They want me to stand with them, right? But where the fuck they at, when they supposed to be standing by us? I mean, when shit goes bad and there’s hell to pay where they at? This game is rigged, man. We like the little bitches on a chessboard.
McNulty tells him someone has to step up if they’re going to take Stanfield off the streets. Bodie responds, “I’ll do what I gotta. I don’t give a fuck. Just don’t ask me to live on my fucking knees, you know?”
Bodie, like Zebotka, dies in a quest to recapture the order of an institution that no longer exists. Bodie refuses to give up his corner and a drug culture that had rules he could respect and understand. Frank refuses to give up his docks.
One can imagine the Broaduses and the Zebotkas passing each other on Moravia Road not knowing how much they have in common.
The characters’ helplessness in the face of their institutions is best captured in a quick exchange between Slim Charles and Avon Barksdale after Stringer is killed. Slim Charles blames Marlo Stanfield’s organization for Stringer’s death, but Barksdale tells him String died “over some other shit.” Slim tells him, “Don’t matter who did what to who at this point. Fact is, we went to war, and now there ain’t no going back. I mean, shit, it’s what war is, you know? Once you in it, you in it. If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie. But we gotta fight.”
Perhaps nothing speaks better to the blind power of institutions in The Wire than Slim’s commitment in that moment to a war he can not win for reasons that no longer matter.
Can Anyone Fix It?
Ultimately, there are only three reformers in The Wire with the power and the will to change the systems they inhabit: Bunny Colvin, Cedric Daniels and Tommy Carcetti.
I’ve already explored Carcetti’s self-delusional ability to allow Baltimore to decline as he eyes the Maryland Statehouse. Power and ambition kill his reforming spirit.
Daniels is given a brief chance to reform the system. He assures the women who love him that he knows how the play the game and has learned his lessons. In the fifth season, we finally see him sitting atop the police force. And it’s crushing to see him lose his seat so quickly for politics outside his control. Seeing Valcheck replace him must feel like being kicked when he’s already down.
Colvin’s attempt at reform is more interesting. It works. Hampsterdam makes a return to civil life in other parts of his district possible. And we see “the academics” come in and help the addicts and others who flock to the free zone. The police commanders are apoplectic when they hear about it, of course. You can’t juke the stats by actually fixing things. But when Mayor Clarence Royce sees that the district’s crime statistics have dramatically dropped, he is intrigued. He wonders if “we can call this shit something it ain’t” and adopt it more broadly. An aide tells him not to even think about it.
If they did that, Royce might not get reelected. The voters would never understand.
In this instance, as in many others, The Wire’s message is ultimately political. The failings of systems are our failings. Our failing to care, to hold leaders accountable, to think for ourselves and outside ourselves. The Wire is perhaps the best kind of art in that it enhances reality in a way that makes it more understandable.
For their part, the creators of The Wire pledged to never vote anyone guilty should they serve on a jury for a non-violent drug case. But that sort of negating action, while concrete, falls short of reforms that would solve the problems The Wire highlights, which touch everything from the civil service and education system to housing oversupplies and the labor market.
And it would be a mistake to think that policy prescriptions are the sole solution. The Wire also teaches us — particularly through Bubbles — that the journey from statistic to citizen is also a personal one.
When we talk about the systems that bedevil the characters in The Wire, we’re also talking about the people that make up those systems. And we are talking about ourselves.
Conclusion: The Wire is Greatest Moving Sound and Image Contribution to Western Civilization
The first time I watched The Wire, I literally could not watch anything else for a month. It all fell short. As I watched The Wire a second and third time, some of the artifice started to show through, particularly in the fifth season. But overall, The Wire is hands down, absolutely, no arguments, the best television series in the history of the medium. And it is probably even better than that.
I suspect I’ll watch it a fourth time, probably with my kids.
All I’ve ever wanted tech-wise for a long time is a simple word processor. Nothing fancy, just something that converts finger motions into characters that can be stored somewhere. Unfortunately, my tech needs have gone unmet by the computer industry. Through much fruitless searching, I learned that the market for people who want to just write with their devices is limited in scope. In fact, stand-alone word processors seem to be available only for typing classes and other educational purposes, cost hundreds of dollars, and don’t necessarily connect to typical word processing software.
But, finally, I’ve found a solution. I upgraded my phone recently to a Motorola / Droid Bionic. Like many Verizon phones, it comes with Bluetooth connectivity. I hooked it up to a Motorola wireless keyboard (intended it seems for the Xoom) and voila, I have the power to type into Evernote, email apps and more. The Bionic has a relatively large screen, so I’m also able to edit a bit. But even with an app that handles Office docs, I find that adding track changes and comments into the mix is just too cumbersome for a mobile device. There are other Bluetooth keyboards meant for business travelers — I handled at least one in an airport that was fold-able and full-sized — but the Motorola keyboard is small enough to fit into a carry-on bag.
All told, factoring in the contract and Verizon’s “new every two” policy, the phone plus the keyboard were much cheaper than an iPad, but more expensive than a netbook. And having my phone function as my word processor has a layer of convenience since my phone is always on my person.
There’s also a Bionic accessory — a “lapdock” — that connects the phone to a keyboard and embiggens the screen. At $300 this really didn’t seem worth it to me, especially since the keyboard was a bit on the small side. And at that point, I would have been better off (maybe) breaking down, buying an iPad and reverting back to a brick phone. (Razrs are still cool, right?)
The last nice thing about the Bionic is that Verizon has a case for it that comes with a “kickstand” built into the back that can prop the phone up for comfortable viewing.
I also learned that my older phone, an A855 Droid 1, didn’t want to connect to any Bluetooth-enabled keyboard. At one point, I even paid a Romanian guy for an app that allowed older phones to handle so-called “Bluetooth human interface devices.” But even after learning that PayPal can convert to Euros, I couldn’t get the phone to stay connected to a standard-issue Microsoft Bluetooth keyboard for more than a few minutes. Oddly, even when I got the Bionic, it didn’t want to play nice with the Microsoft keyboard, so I went for the Motorola keyboard and got lucky.
Now that I finally have the portable word processor I’ve dreamed of for lo these many years, I’ve mostly been using it for notes at meetings. Clearly, the magic of having a word processor doesn’t mean I’m going to bust out a novel any time soon, but it’s good to finally have something that works.
I got lost down a nice Scrabble-related Internet rabbit hole a few days ago. It’s always good to know what a game’s theoretical limits are. It helps you figure out optimal strategy and can often given you deeper insight in the mechanics of the game itself.
Some Scrabble players have constructed boards to answer the question, “What is the highest scoring possible Scrabble play?” Turns out the answer depends on what dictionary you use. It also depends, if you read into the comments, on whether or not one can truly perform the act of ”sesquioxidizing” or if one can only “synthesizing a sesquioxide.”
Well, don’t try that at home. But it does demonstrate the value in a regular game of Scrabble of creating more than one word in a single play and exploiting multiple bonus tiles.
Secondly, Stefan Fatsis, the author of an excellent book on competitive Scrabble, also has a nice article about the highest scoring sanctioned Scrabble play and game.
Interestingly, the game was only possible because the players employed incorrect Scrabble strategies that opened up plays known as triple-triples. Michael Cresta, who won the game, passed a turn to exchange letters so he could make what became the highest-scoring play. While strategically incorrect — he had less than a 1 in 500 chance of succeeding– he pulled it off.
This reminded me a lot of amateur poker players, myself included, who have incorrectly drawn toward flushes, straights and other “non-made” hands.
But it’s also interesting that the Scrabble player’s “incorrect” play resulted in a record that will probably be associated with his name for a long, long time. Similarly, poker player Barry Greenstein once used the potential fame associated with a decision — in his case, the largest contested pot in televised poker history — to justify what he acknowledged might not have been a strategically optimal play. Unlike Cresta, however, Greenstein wound up losing the hand in question.
I tried submitting this a few places and didn’t hear back. Except for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, which rejected it, but did so with an encouraging note. I hope you enjoy.
My fellow Americans: I stand before you today as a candidate for the President of the United States.
Many of you don’t know me. But some of you may know me from C-SPAN.
Yeah. C-SPAN fans. Great folks.
A lot of people want to bring change to Washington. But honestly, I’m pretty happy with the status quo.
As an elected representative, I have to admit, it’s pretty nice. You get an office, some staffers. People thank you for things constantly. As your president, I would have a lot more staffers and a far greater variety of people thanking me for things at much greater frequency and with much more fervor.
And the cafeteria my colleagues and I have access to is not that bad.
Pretty affordable, too. There are these really good crepes. And, you know, the president can order whatever he wants to eat. So I could get a guy who is a professional crepe chef. Under my administration, there will definitely be more and higher quality crepes.
Now I know a lot of you think Washington has become dangerously out of touch with you and your lives. Well, that’s because there’s a lot of you. It’s really hard to get to know everybody well.
I have a colleague from Rhode Island. I told him, hey, your state is only like 1,000 square miles, I bet you know your constituents really well. Like you run into them at the supermarket all the time, right?
And he said, no, it’s still a million people. Damn, I said, that’s a lot of people.
Then we got some crepes at the cafeteria. He bought. Cool guy.
Point is, you might think a guy from Wyoming has it easy. The least people out of any state, right? But Wyoming is huge. If he took the time to meet everybody, driving all around the state, he’d never be able to stop because new people would keep getting born. It would be like a vicious circle. Not vicious. I like babies. It would be a happy circle, but still a circle.
And getting to know anybody? I mean really knowing them? That’s hard. As president, I’ll be honest, I couldn’t care about every single American in a meaningful way. Not individually.
It takes me like five episodes to get really into characters on a TV series and those are scripted. Real life, as we know, is not scripted. Except campaign speeches. And this is one of those.
Oh, I should warn you. I’m going to say some extreme stuff during the primaries. You kind of have to nowadays. Primary voters like it. But then, if I win the primary, I’m gonna say a lot of really general-sounding stuff since I’ll need to appeal to a larger number of voters.
You might think, hey, that guy said something I totally agreed with and now he seems kind of wishy-washy about that thing I really care about.
Don’t worry. For each one of you there are two people who will say, hey that guy said something I thought was crazy, but now he sounds pretty reasonable. And for each of those people, there’s ten more who won’t even be paying attention during the time when I say things that may sound crazy.
A lot of people think that’s cynical. Well, you’re not gonna get any argument from me.
Also, I shouldn’t forget to mention my wife. And I didn’t.
That’s my speech. Thanks. And god bless America.
Unless you’re not into the whole religion in public life thing.
In which case, well, don’t worry, that’s just how you end speeches.
Paramount says World War Z‘s film adaptation will follow Brad Pitt’s quest to stop the zombie outbreak. While that departs radically what the book depicted — humanity learning from its failure to prevent and contain a zombie outbreak and its eventual triumph over the zombie menace — I get why a literal adaptation would have been pretty hard to pull off.
A literal adaptation would have involved dozens of directors from around the world each filming a chapter using local actors and locations. It would be 30 hours long and while I would watch every minute of it, I understand that the studio has to market the movie to people who didn’t read the book. That said, the book itself is pretty dark and the idea of depicting a post-apocalyptic environment where humanity is trying to rebuild is appealing, but probably not mass-appealing.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for instance, was a great book. But the film version, which was a fairly literal adaptation, made for a soul-sucking, relatively boring cinematic experience.
Something I found on the street is making me a safer biker. Well, something a friend found while he was biking along with a group of us who were walking. It’s an orange and yellow, reflective construction vest. It must have fallen off the back of a truck or something. It was pretty dirty, but I immediately grasped how useful it would be for biking around the city. There’s nothing that says, “Slow down, motorist!” like one of these vests.
After a few weeks of use, I can report that cars have been keeping their distance more than they used to and are slightly less likely to pass me on the left. There are probably other tweaks that can help a cyclist stand out. One guy I know has a zebra-patterned helmet with a large, brush-like crest. Another coworker recommends taking one of those blinking safety lights and affixing it with an elastic band to your leg. ‘Motorists don’t know what blinks red and bounces up and down,’ he explains. I also remember reading a study a guy did where he wore a long-haired wig to test how drivers kept their distance. He theorized that drivers were more conscious of a female cyclists’ safety rather than a male cyclist’s. I guess I buy that, but that truly seems like a hassle.
Anyway, the vest is mesh and zips up, so I it’s good for summer and winter cycling. I also see online that there are vests with pockets, which might be a nice add-on.
I also discovered it conveys an image of authority. I went to the White House to witness the crowd after Osama bin Laden was killed. An inebriated college student asked me if there were any porta-potties. I told him we hadn’t anticipate the crowd that night, so we neglected to set them up. Guiltily, I also told him I was not an official representative of any government body. I’m sure he didn’t care.
I also own a bullhorn. Combined with the vest, I could probably figure out a way to get prime space at an outdoor concert.
And now I’m wondering if I can get a similarly reflective wrap-around for my car.
New York magazine has an excellent profile of Jon Stewart. He’s quoted giving a spot-on critique of Fox News and MSNBC:
It’s one reason I admire Fox. They’re great broadcasters. Everything is pointed, purposeful. You follow story lines, you fall in love with characters: ‘Oh, that’s the woman who’s very afraid of Black Panthers! I can’t wait to see what happens next. Oh, look, it’s the ex-alcoholic man who believes that Woodrow Wilson continues to wreak havoc on this country! This is exciting!’ Even the Fox morning show, the way they’re able to present propaganda as though it’s merely innocent thoughts occurring to them: ‘What is this “czar”? I’m Googling, and you know what’s interesting about a czar? It’s a Russian oligarch! Don’t you think it’s weird that Obama has Russian oligarchs, and he’s a socialist?’ Whereas MSNBC will trace the word and say, ‘If you don’t understand that, you’re an idiot!’ The mistake they make is that somehow facts are more important than feelings.