August 31, 2012

Link Hive #8, or A Roundup of Lies and Untruths

In honor of the RNC coming to a close yesterday with the official nomination of The Mitt (thankfully we can drop that horrible "putative" descriptor) here is a list of examples of the Republicans playing fast and loose with the truth.  The other day we laid out the problems with the Elephant-based Party, and this is probably their worst trait that has evolved over the past decade.

Perhaps the most convincing way to make this point is satire, so we leave you with two clips from the guys who actually had the most informative coverage of the RNC: The Daily Show.  The first clip illustrates the hypocrisy, the second the mendacity of your modern conservative.

August 29, 2012

Why There Isn't a Party for Most of Us, Part 2; or The Dance of the Elephants

As you know from this post we have no particular love for the Democratic Party, despite the fact that the Pew Center for Research considers us "Solid Liberals".  Some may conclude, by process of elimination, that we would naturally have to be Republican voters in that case.  Well, they'd be wrong, because the only American political party that we dislike more than the Dems is the Republicans.

Why, you might ask?

It's not because they have become a bunch of liars who don't care a lick about facts, as Charles Pierce of Esquire so clearly points out.  It's not that they have decided to turn their back on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and shun and/or disenfranchise every minority group possible to carry out this year's version of the "Southern Strategy".  It's not that they have decided to eschew intelligence and knowledge to pander to their uneducated base.  (No wonder they hate teachers.)  It's not that they continue to cough up retreads of the most disastrous economic policies in history.  It's not that they have jacked up the National Debt more than Dems, then hypocritically crying about the size of the National Debt.  It's not their obvious and blatant hypocrisy, in general.  It's not their insistence on telling women what is best for their bodies.  [By the way this tweet from Stephen Colbert explains why Michael Steele chose Tampa for the RNC: it's the strip clubs. -ed.]  It's not that they have concentrated into a cabal of Cruel Old White Men.

It's that they don't even try to pretend to be ashamed of that long list of indictments.

As a result they have become a bunch of mean-spirited ideologues wedded to some out-dated sense of what-A'merca-stands-for.  As a result they are now the party of non-educated white men, according to all the polls.  As a result, they are petrified by the realization that their will many more people born who aren't them in the coming decades.  As a result they have started to believe the great big lies they have been telling us.  [e.g. Chris Christie claiming that his father "Built It", despite the fact that he parlayed an armed forces stint to a GI Bill financed state college degree.  All of those are provided by the government. Or, just the fact that they have the temerity to plaster that silly slogan all over the publicly finance sports arena that they currently occupy. -ed.]

As a result, they are making a foolish run to the extreme right, in a short term effort to win votes, that will ultimately isolate them in obscurity.  From where we sit, we think that the Republicans deserve the Tea-Baggers.  After-all they are just the folks that actually believe the rhetoric that the old Republican Party would shout, then ignore.

To put a nice bow on it, think of the Dems as your mother: telling you to eat your broccoli because it's good for you, begging you to eat your broccoli, then bribing you to do so.  Now think of the R's as your alcoholic, swearing, Bible-thumping, adulterous, abusive father who won't let you have the keys to the car Saturday night because you didn't earn it.

At least mom has your personal well-being in mind.

August 28, 2012

Why Blog?, or Paying Homage to the Greats

Now that we have built a tiny and undedicated audience for this blog we have been asked this question at least twice, "Why on earth do you write that miserable little blog of yours?"

Here are the top three reasons that we maintain a blog.

  1. Self-importance: We have things to say, and it is eminently aggrandizing to spray them across the internet instead of ineffectually shouting at the TV/radio/computer/random strangers
  2. Self-delusion: people want to hear what we have to say, and are clamoring for more of our trite, lazy analysis of current events, public policy, and/or science!
  3. The real reason that we do this is we grew up in the age of newspaper consolidation and widespread syndication, which meant that we could read some really great writing and journalism even in our dinky hometown daily.  We particularly remember thinking for a time that syndicated columnist, Dave Barry had just about the best job we could imagine.  How fun it would be to goof around all week then write about it in a few column inches each week.  But at the time we also thought that it was nearly impossible for an average person like ourselves to become so widely read, and influential.  We imagined the years spent slogging it out in the newsroom to make it to the ranks of syndication, and we concluded that other pursuits were more attractive to us on a professional level.  Besides, we liked math and science better than literature and composition by the time we had to decide on a college major.  That was when we let our original dream of editorial fame dwindle.  Fast forward a few years, and thanks to disintermediation afforded by the internet anyone can be an amateur columnist.  So now that the barriers to entry are quite low, we daily feel the call to pick up the torch laid down by some of the past greats and tap out some thoughts that can be read by the wider public.  It's not to say that we count ourselves peers to the great and dedicated professional writers that we still enjoy reading, but we also value the ability for any citizen to put pen to paper bytes to text editor and scrawl out a some insight about the world we live in.  Professional journalists don't have a monopoly on great writing or good sense and you can find examples of insightful writing by amateurs all over this great and varied internet.
As we mentioned yesterday, go check out Dave Barry's columns on the RNC over at National Journal.  While you do so think about penning your own blog about what you see around you.  Our society will be stronger for it.

August 27, 2012

A Brief Outage, or Why It's a Good Idea to Take a Break

For those of you that were wondering where we were last Friday, it was a family day for you intrepid blogger.  No need to ratchet up the outrage level when we were enjoying such great fun with the fam.  For those of you that missed us, we say thanks.  While we were paused for a moment we also passed another milestone: 3000 page views.  Once again, thanks for stopping by and having a look-see.  Don't be shy to post a comment or two.
The rest of the week will be back to the normal posting schedule.  Here's what we have planned:

Have a great week.

August 23, 2012

End of the Road, or Paging Mr. Brady

With a seemingly endless supply of headlines of mass shootings this summer, one thing has become more and more evident: the control debate is over.  Every tragedy has seen a reiteration from both Democrats and Republicans that there will be no further action on limiting firearm ownership.  Writing in Esquire Magazine's  The Politics Blog Tom Junod points out that the consensus of policy makers, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, is not that we have too many guns, but too few.  This has largely come about by the Republican Party "ideological doubling down" on its all guns for all people mantra.

So, headlines like the ones we saw in response to the Aurora, CO movie theater shooting are just the beginning.  In fact, we have had the horrifying realization that we no longer feel anything other than resigned apathy with each successive mass shooting story we have read this summer.

What ever happened to Republican claims of being the party that values life?  Apparently, their protection of life ends once you are born.  What ever happened to the spine of the Democratic Party...oh, wait... never mind.  What, then, ever happened to James Brady?

Where have you gone James Brady?

August 22, 2012

Big Business Is Here to Save the Day, or The New Mythology

I'm desperately wracking my brain right now to remember whom to attribute this quote:
Americans mistrust government more than Europeans even though we [Americans] have arguably had better governments than they have. And we trust companies more than Europeans even though we have arguably had worse companies.
I'm going to attribute it to Jeff Jarvis of the CUNY School of Journalism, but it looks like the original idea might have come from someone else.
In this corner...
And, in this corner...

Anyhoo, on to the real point of this post:

Does anyone else find it more than a little ironic that this notion is unquestioningly accepted today: business experience is an asset for a candidate for public office?  Or, we could flip that and say that candidates without business experience are particularly singled out for ridicule.  Stop me if you have heard this campaign mantra before. "As a small-business owner, I know how to run [insert level of government office] and create jobs in this economy."  Or this one.  "My opponent has no experience running a business, and has no idea what it means to create jobs."


It's as though we have all agreed to forget these names: Enron, WorldCom, Tyco International, Standard Oil, AT&T (the original incarnation, as well as its current), Lehman Brothers, the list is virtually endless.  They all had leadership that did damn-fine-work destroying shareholder equity while eliminating jobs by the gross.  I'm sure, positive in fact, that each of them had an exec or two with ambitions to run for public office, not to mention how much weight these guys threw around on KSt.

There is a fundamental difference between running a for-profit enterprise and a (likely) heavily in debt State.  I'm reminded of the Washington Post op-ed by Mann and Ornstein that I linked to in this post.  The government is not a enterprise that must be profitable and be sure to balance its budget annually, which is the knee-jerk reaction of most businessman-cum-candidate.  ("I could never run my business spending like Washington does.")  In times of private sector contraction, it is frequently suicidal for governments to pull back on spending in response to shrinking revenue.  Just ask every cash-strapped state Governor with a constitutionally mandated balanced budget.  I would agree with anyone who says that a government should try to stay within a rational spending plan over a span of many years, but treating the public trust as an accounting exercise is foolish.

Moreover, the same analysis needed to asses the business case for an new enterprise would surely veto any number of essential government services and agencies that are required to make a stable state.  Cost vs. benefit analysis is inadequate to decide the merits of many critical infrastructure and publicly beneficial investments.  The strictly Objectivist view that seems to be spewing out of any of the new wave of Conservatives and Tea-Baggers is no way to ensure that people have a wealth of societally beneficial assets like National Parks, breathable air, potable water, investment in basic science and R&D, transit infrastructure...the list is endless.  Not to mention the host of private enterprise that is heavily (or solely...looking at you military-industrial complex) reliant on government contracts to stay in business.

Over the years I've personally worked with some pretty smart executives that would likely make very effective public servants (it's likely to their personal credit, and not a little ironic, that these are likely the last people who would profess to run for office), but I've also worked for some really s#!*ty a$&-holes who would make incredibly disastrous political leaders.

Just think about the terminology for a minute, "public servant" and "business leader."  Which one describes someone who is looking out for the common good?  Which one describes the self-interested individual who makes decisions based on profit?

As should not surprise you, dear reader, the business world is made up of jerks, and smart people, and nice people, and hard workers, and lazy f^&kers, and...all of which are pretty evenly dispersed.  Just like everywhere else.  So, the next time someone say some like the above quotes, stop and consider your coworkers over the years.  Who among them would be worthy of your vote for Senator, let alone dog catcher?

August 21, 2012

Link Hive #7, or The Internet Is AllKindsOfScaryToo

After Link Hive #5 where we marveled at how awesome the internet is, there have been a spate of stories to remind us that the internet can be a rough and tumble kind of place, too.  This may surprise some, but we here at DI prefer an unregulated internet.  We directly benefit from the free and open internet, and we think any public or private limitations on the net imperil free speech and access to information,.  And as the Arab Spring has shown, those are two critical checks on governmental power.

Though that does mean a kind of Wild West notion of property rights as a result.  To wit:

Scared yet?

(Please keep using the internet, though.  It'd be lonely our here in cyberspace without you.  Just be careful whom you give your data to.)

August 20, 2012

Paul Ryan, or Ayn Rand?

What to make of the inclusion of Paul Ryan on the Republican Presidential ticket?  We already discussed that this was a Hail Mary play for the Romney camp that should please the Democrats to no end.  Other smart people have pointed that out, as well.  (Obama has increased his lead in most polls since Ryan was added to the Romney ticket.)  Let's go into a little more depth:

First, and most inexplicable, he somehow likes Rage Against the Machine, which clearly means he is one of those people that doesn't listen to lyrics.  What's next, a secret confession by Joe Biden that he is really into Kid Rock and The Motor City Madman, Ted Nugent?  Actually, Biden is just nutty enough for that to be true, so let's change that to Dennis Kucinich.

And, since the recently concluded Summer Olympics are still on our minds...Best Intellectual Gymnastics Routine goes to the Romney camp who are simultaneously running away from and taking credit for liking/adopting Ryan's budget proposal.  Translation: "Don't freak moderates, we're not using Ryan's budget.  Don't freak out teabaggers, we're totally using Ryan's budget."  Maybe that award should be for coherently speaking out of both sides of the mouth.

Why all the tortuous posturing?  This the very same budget that has been called so radical, silly, and even cartoonishly evil that pollsters working for Priorities Action USA couldn't get regular folks to believe that it was a serious piece of legislation.  (Here is the original NYT story.)  In fact, even everyone's favorite Newt (Gingrich) found the Ryan budget to be too much to stomach (get it?) when he called the Ryan budget "right-wing social engineering" during his campaign to be in Republican driver's seat that Mitt Romney now occupies.

Some have called Ryan "courageous" for being willing to grab the third rail of politics, entitlement reform.  It might be more accurate to say Ryan pushes way past courage into foolhardiness with the structure of his budget proposal.  As Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out on PBS Newshour on Monday, proposing huge tax cuts for the wealthy doesn't exactly take a ton of bravery for Republicans.  The scale of the cutbacks, eliminations, burden shifting, and broken promises in the Ryan budget puts it in the category of fantastical rather than courageous.  The full clip from Newshour is below, so you can watch the arguments for yourself.

Then, there is Paul Ryan's nettlesome voting record.  Apparently, Mr. Budget Hawk himself voted for TARP and bank bailouts, and even jumped on the stimulus bandwagon that is so antithetical to conservatives these days.  Jon Stewart does this joke better than we could hope to:

It also turns out Ryan is rather well off.  Now the whole tax-cuts-for-wealthy-people angle in his budget is starting to make sense.  It never ceases to amaze us how people that have enjoyed every advantage of means to achieve any level of success want to then pull the ladder up behind them.  Either Ryan assumes future generations will be far more talented and resourceful that they can handle more obstacles to success, or he has such a disdain for middle and lower-class people that he prefer that they just go away.  Or, is this some kind of "let them eat cake" idea of social mobility?

By the way, we have long wondered why doesn't Grover Norquist get his undies in bunch about raising taxes on middle and low income Americans?  No matter how they try to spin it, the Ryan plan will raise taxes.  (That is the very definition of "lower rates and broaden the base".)  Just not on the people writing checks to conservative Super-PACs.

We do not pretend that the fiscal problems that we face aren't serious business and will take a significant overhaul of how programs are funded to get it under control.  A massive tear-down of the social saftety net in the name of austerity (but is little more than some Ayn Rand-inspired dream of how Ryan thinks the world ought to work), however, would be a major drag on an economy that needs all the help it can get right now.  (Just ask a European how well austerity works in a fiscal crunch.)  The wise approach would be to find ways to bring productivity gains to the public sector in order to reap greater spending efficiency, and find the proper balance of spending and investments to create a level playing field and a future-proof economy.

On top of that, we are seeing Ryan being more energetic and present on the campaign trail, which makes us and many others wonder who is the real head of the Republican ticket.  All-in-all this looks like a move that will ultimately backfire for Romney.

August 17, 2012

Why Some Are So Afraid of Obama, or Methinks the Right Dost Protest Too Much

[In last week's "Weak in Review" post we promised you two quixotic posts on politics this week.  The first introduced the idea of the perfect balance between liberty and societal cohesion.  We call it SCEP.  This post takes that idea and directly applies it as a way to pick between two flawed Presidential candidates. - ed.]

For all the moaning about how spectacularly bad the mass media is that goes on around here, we here at Distasteful Inelegance wanted to belie a misconception that you, dear reader, may have about us.  We don't watch TV news letting the poor quality of coverage angry up the blood.  We don't even have cable anymore.  What we do to stay abreast on current events is read really good long form journalism like this piece from The Atlantic online (You can go ahead and go read it now.  We'll wait.  Oh, you're back.  Welcome.) that takes a very dim - but fair - view of both party's nominees.  Kind of like what was said in this post.  Would that we could have a serious conversation about things that really matter to a nation.

Let's pause for contemplation...
As a contemplative sort, we naturally got to thinking about why people like the President despite the really bad stuff  that he has done in his first term: kill/capture list, Gitmo, Patriot Acting...the list gets disturbingly long.  Larry Lessig puts it best in his critique of the President.  Even if we ignore the scary-illegal stuff they've been up to, Lessig is correct: President Barack Obama has not lived up to the potential of Candidate Obama.  (Of course, that would have been impossible for any mortal, but anyway...)

Now, we will be quick to confess that we probably give more heft to what Mr. Obama says than what he and his administration does.  Clearly, we all suffer from a certain confirmation bias that leads us to overly weight the positive aspects of Our Guy and minimize his weaknesses.  The converse is true for Their Guy.  In our either/or choice for President, we all to often focus on why the Their Guy is going to be a disaster for the country, and don't spend enough time facing the cold hard facts about Our Guy.

While we wrestle with that for a while, let's flip this on it's head for a minute.  If you were a "swaggering, conservative, faux cowboy with authoritarian fantasies that viewed yourself as an independent alpha male taking on the world"*, what Democratic Presidential Candidate would you fear the most?  Probably a highly intelligent center-left fellow of non-WASP heritage who possesses bags of public appeal, right?  You'd probably see, and fear, the fundamental change in society that his election to the highest office in the land might represent.  Ergo, the Right's concerted attempt to recast Obama with streams of false accusations of everything he isn't: radical socialist, Muslim, foreign.

Remember this is the guy that said this in the infamous "you didn't build that" speech:
"Not every government program works the way it’s supposed to.  And frankly, government can’t solve every problem."
You can see how that practically Reagan-esque statement would freak out anyone trying to like The Mitt.  They cry the most when hit that close to home.

Oh, yeah, we remember why we tend to overlook the really bad stuff the current President has done, and why he is the safer choice: most of us appear to have largely ignored  the fact that we have drifted away from the proper balance in public policy that made us a great nation historically.  By just about any measure you can think of - income disparity, wealth concentration, social mobility, access to education, global competitiveness - we are moving away from a system that enables the best our citizens have to offer.  Only one candidate seems to be aware of that fact (We occasionally bump into people that can't honestly recognize that, and all we can do is ask them, "Who was the guest on Hannity last night?").  He is the same guy that said this very reasonable thing:
"The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  There are some things...we don’t do on our own...So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together.  That’s how we funded the GI Bill.  That’s how we created the middle class.  That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam.  That’s how we invented the Internet.  That’s how we sent a man to the moon.  We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President -- because I still believe in that idea.  You’re not on your own, we’re in this together." 
Now, despite the fun had at his expense on this blog, you don't particularly need to fear, nor mistrust, nor dislike Gov. Romney.  If we afford him the same benefit of the doubt that we do Mr. Obama and ignore the execrable things he has said trying to get elected, he's a pretty moderate, reasonable guy.  The biggest problem with The Mitt, however, is if elected President he will be leading a party (and has chosen a running mate) that has staked a position diametrically opposed to the above sentiment.  A party whose current policy direction is a radical departure from what we have agreed is a good balance of support for the society at large, and the individual liberty of each of us (it's that hypothetical SCEP thing we are always talking about).  Unfortunately for our democracy, it really is the choice for the greater of two seriously flawed, candidates.  And in many ways it really will be a bigger disaster if we pick Mitt.

[We'll come back to more on that guy Ryan, and why his is a dangerous ideology next week. -ed.]

*This quote comes from a really smart person that I have the pleasure of knowing.  Unfortunately, it comes from a Facebook post that cannot be linked to on the public internet.  (Zuckerberg! <shakes fist in anger>) This will have to do for attribution.

August 14, 2012

The Myth of the Self-Made Man, or the False Tyranny of Circumstance

[In continuation of our discussion of VP choices, finance, the economy and job creation, the social safety net, and the larger mission of government.] 

If you listen to the noise coming out of the presidential campaigns - or more precisely the "unaffiliated" shills peopling super-PACs and cable news editorial staffs -  long enough, you might be fooled into believing one of two things (or both?) that aren't true about our country.

One side wants you to believe that we live in a perfect meritocracy where, through hard work and pluck alone, simply anyone can bootstrap himself (or herself) out of the middle class and take a seat at the Great Table of Unlimited Wealth.  Right next to Donald Trump and his merry band of alpha-males.  These folks seem to quake in constant fear that mean old socialists will storm jackbooted into their penthouses and force them back down into the grey, feckless mass of the middle class, forever forced to take public handouts that rob them of their self-esteem and pride.  Or, you know, actually make them pay taxes or something.

The other side wants you to believe that plutocrats have successfully perpetrated a silent coup d'eta of our government to cement a neo-feudal class structure where no man (or woman) is capable freeing himself (or herself) from the shackles of the circumstance of his (or her) birth.  These folks seem to see Dickensian villains - ever poised to send each of us to debtor's prison, or the poor house, or the orphanage - pulling the puppet strings of industry and government to guarantee that individual effort is funneled solely into corporate profits.  Or, whatever it was that Noam Chomsky and George Orwell were really afraid of.

Neither of those narratives is remotely true.  As with just about anything you can think of, the truth is more nuanced and complicated than an overly-reductive campfire tale.  As citizens of the United States of America, we fortunately live somewhere near the exact midpoint between these two dystopian hellscapes.  The issue that necessarily gets lost in the FUD, is how close we are to that midpoint.  (For more on this subject go read this excellent article in The Economist, which is similar to this old DI post.)  That is something I will call the Societal Cohesion Equilibrium Point (SCEP).

Without getting too esoteric on you, dear reader, we can think of the SCEP as the point where regulation, liberty, and socioeconomic mobility are tuned just right to create the perfectly level playing field for everyone.  Success would then be a function of ingenuity and hard work, while circumstance could unfairly hinder no one.  People are not advantaged nor disadvantaged based on demography.  Yes, this is what you might call a total f&#king fairy tale.  There aren't enough social scientists in the universe nor precise econometrics to even design a thought experiment to find SCEP.  But, I think we all could agree that it is out there, and it's pursuit is the real job of government.

Back to reality.  The dynamic systems that make up a society of 300-odd million people (let alone the interaction of micro and macrocultures on a global scale) are so chaotic and complex that luck and randomness and circumstance will always play a role in success and failure.  Conversely, despite that infallible truth, hard work and personal responsibility are essential virtues to stack the deck in one's favor.  Those, therefore, that sit on a mountain of wealth and conclude they are uniquely touched by the gods are just as misguided as those that blame their station in life on the hands of an unfair society.

So, when it comes to objectively deciding whom to vote for this Fall, try to ask yourself which guy's aim is to get us closer to the SCEP.  Try to listen to the arguments and read between the lines, because a certain vice-presidential nominee's budget proposal is more about tearing down current institutions and replacing them with some Ayn Rand inspired libertarian pipe dream.  The other guys are more interested in making those institutions bettter.  Just remember this is not a fight between neo-feudalism and.arch-socialism.

We will never achieve a truly level playing field, but if we all close our eyes and believe hard enough...

August 13, 2012

A Telling Choice for Veep; or Careful, Ryan. Most Things In Here Don't React Too Well To Bullets

As you, dear readers, are no doubt already aware Gov. Romney has tapped Wisconsin Representative, Paul  Ryan, as his running mate.  We will tackle this in more depth (more depth than this one sentance, anyway) later, but in the meantime here is some suggested reading on the subject.

Two heels of the same loaf of Wonder Bread?
More bullets!

  • Henry Blodget at Business Insider points out the analysis of Ryan (Here's the keeper quote: "Mr. Ryan is the most conservative Republican member of Congress to be picked for the vice-presidential slot since at least 1900. He is also more conservative than any Democratic nominee was liberal, meaning that he is the furthest from the center.") by NYT's Nate Silver.

  • Here is the original post by Silver at his excellent NYT blog FiveThirty Eight.  Most interesting is that Nate Silver projected Romney to have only a 30% chance of winning before selecting Ryan.  Obviously, he needed to do something different, but as we will point out later this week, it is likely to backfire on Romney.  (Notice how he is already trying to distance himself from the "Ryan Budget"?)  The post is titled "A Risky Rationale Behind Romney’s Choice of Ryan".

That sound you heard Saturday morning?  That was David Axelrod having a spontaneous orgasm.

Farewell London Olympics, We Barely Knew Ye; or Start Gearing Up for Sochi

[insert snarky comment here]
A quick recap of interestingness that came out of the Game of the XXX Olympiad.  They really should think about the implications of using Roman numerals when recurring events reach their thirtieth edition, but seeing as how this is a Greek tradition revived by a Frenchman with Victorian notions of sporting integrity, maybe "XXX" is appropriate after all.

We will miss you, London 2012, but we will miss hearing presenters on the BBC say, "Oh my goodness me," the most.  While Sochi is next on the Olympic docket, we say bring on Rio de Janeiro, where we are certain to see one or two gratuitous camera pans of bikini-clad beach goers, but until then on to the bullet list:

  • Women ruled the Games - appropriate given that 2012 is the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Title IX (those pesky Roman numerals pop up in the strangest places) gender equity in education law.  Two generations later and we can see its positive effects on women and sport.

  • The further saga of Oscar Pistorius, who went from oy vey! - when his South African 4 x 400 meter relay team failed to complete their heat - to oh yea! - when it was revealed that the Sprinkbok runners would get to race in the final.  The second runner, who was set to hand over to Oscar running third, was impeded by a rival who had strayed into his lane.  So, they got a sporting "do over", and ran respectably in the final, with Oscar running anchor.  Still, an amazing one of the most inspirational stories of these, or any other Games.
This guy is Belgian?  Not pictured is the staffer
being suffocated by Darth Rogge's mind
  • Remember way back in 1992 when MJ had to cover up a rival sponsor's logo on his official podium track suit.  That was nothing compared to this:  The Olympic Brand Police got a bit out of control.  Sure we can understand the IOC not wanting to undermine their lucrative sponsorship arrangements by being lax on inadvertent product placement or guerilla marketing tricks, but this takes the idea to an absurd extreme that even the NCAA would blush at.  We can picture Jacques Rogge pounding on his desk, screaming, "No free rides!" at hapless janitorial staff who had just been ordered to place gaffer's tape on every toilet and urinal in the athletes' village.

  • Lastly, congratulation to Team GB and the PRC for their impressive medal hauls.  In regard to the Chinese team, I suspect our perennial seat at the top of the Summer Games' medals table (which is such passive-aggressive geopolitical bullshit) will soon be a thing of the past.  There has been some unfair coverage of China's swimmers this time around.  They deserve the same benefit of the doubt that, say, American, British and Canadian sprinters, as well as every cyclist deserve. (Yes, Virginia, there is an entire article on Wikipedia about cycling doping scandals.)
[In the interests of niceness, and avoidance of piling on, we chose to exempt NBC from yet more criticism in this post.  Their coverage was terrible on air and on the web.  So, if your dander is up, read this post on HuffPo by the always excellent Jeff Jarvis.  You might even see a comment from someone you recognize on that post. -ed.]

August 10, 2012

Friday, Friday (non-Jessica Black Edition); or Weak In Review

It's Friday and we here at DI would like to take a quick time out from our usual duties* to say welcome to our newest readers.  [We feverishly pour over the daily traffic stats in the vain hope that we are actually building something like an audience.  Usually not. -ed.]  Some of you have found our little blog all the way from Macedonia, Romania, Pakistan, and even more exotic places like Canada.  Cheers to all of you. Feel free to use the comments to register your thoughts on our posting, but please be kind, thoughtful, and considerate of others.  The internets have feelings, too.

This is what our editor looks
like after proofing our posts
 So as to not give you, dear readers, a wholly content-free post here is a link to an interesting infographic from NPR discussing how the unique physics of particular sports select certain body traits for success.  We always thought that female gymnasts were getting smaller over the decades, but we chalked that up to them staying the same size whilst we grew.  Perspective is always tricky through the 2D idiot-box, but now that we have 3D broadcasts we can test that hypothesis.  (Is that enough content to count as a post yet, Mr. Editor?) [No. - ed.]

Ok, so apparently we need to fill more empty bandwidth today.  Here is the...

DI's "Weak" in Review, or a sorry attempt to pad this post's word count

This week on Distasteful Inelegance we:
And as an added bonus, here is the...

DI Crystal Ball of Forecasting, or yet more padding to this post

Next week we have some fun stuff planned for you, dear readers:
  • Probably some kind of Olympics wrap-up, or some other silly speculations
  • Link Hive! #7, scary edition
  • Not one quixotic post about politics, but...
  • ...Two quixotic posts about politics and the Presidential campaigns
Enjoy your weekend, wherever you are.  Ciao.

(Ok now?)  [I guess. -ed.]

*These include mostly lazily "analyzing" outdated news, trying unsuccessfully to sound snarky, failing to change the world, Quixotism, and generally droning on self-importantly.

August 9, 2012

The Quadrennial World $port Activity, or A Two Week Party for Shoe Companies?

[This post is inspired by years of reading the excellent, trenchant The Sports Economist blog.  We can't recommend this blog more highly if you are at all interested in the business of sports.  Go there now and search for Olympics related posts to find some of the best thinking about the financial and economic impact of major events on the host.  And by the way, we aren't economists and we don't play one on TV, so don't get fussy if our reasoning is askew on this topic.  Just leave a comment and explain where our logic is off.   We enjoy watching the Olympic Games, because we love sport.  There is no fiction that matches the dramatic reality of most any athletic competition.  We wonder, however, if we would enjoy the games any less if they weren't as extravagant, and less of a drain on the host's economy.  We suspect not. -ed.]

If you are at all paying attention, you will inevitably hear about the vast sums host countries spend preparing for the Olympic Games - building new sport venues, beefing up public transit, etc.  This is almost always at taxpayer expense.  In fact, the decision to award a particular country an edition of the Games is often swayed heavily by the extent to which that country will dip into the public coffers.  If you might recall the coverage surrounding the final vote of the International Olympic Committee in 2005 to award the 2012  games to London over the putative favorite Paris.  There was wide speculation that Paris' plan to minimize their investment in new venues by erecting mostly temporary facilities was a factor that ultimately pushed the decision in favor of the British and their promises to spend on a massive scale.  Something about ensuring the "legacy" left by the games on London.  A more perfect example of the principle in economics known as "the winners curse" we have never seen, not to mention the big disruption to the normal enterprise that occurs on a daily basis in London.

No trunk or big ears, but this is what a white elephant looks like
Let's show them what they've won.  Here is what London, and the British taxpayer, is going to "own" on August 13, 2012: lots of big white elephants dotting the  London skyline.  Yes, London, that's even after having the honor of being the most over budget and expensive games in history.  [Even the broadcast rights fees go back to the IOC, meaning that the state-supported BBC is paying to cover the events commercial-free.  Not that we're complaining.  We've been watching web streams of BBC's coverage, and been loving it.  No #NBCFail for us. -ed.]  Not convinced?  Just ask Montreal, Athens, and even Beijing how awesome it to have massively expensive, empty stadiums that take decades to pay off.  Maybe Greece would rather not have the extra billions tacked onto their national debt from the 2004 Games right about now?

It should be noted that Beijing is the exception that proves the rule.  Only a country with that much trade-surplus cash on hand could afford to throw a pile of money down the Olympics hole.

It should read, "Good luck paying for it."
There is something else that occurs to us about the Olympics, though.  This is a unique time for most of the athletes.  For a few days every four years, their largely ignored sport gets a ton of media and public attention focused on it.  That attention can lead to vast riches for those players who are particularly successful (Mr. Phelps, Mr. Bolt, et. al.), particularly photogenic (Ms. Solo, and nearly any beach volleyball player), or extremely media savvy (Tyler Clary).  It also occurs to us that the companies that make all the shoes, apparel, and various other bits of the athletes' kits seem to always report windfall profits in an Olympic year. Go check out some of the financials on participating companies.  Not mentioning any names but there have to be many smiling faces around Beaverton, OR and Herzogenaurach, Germany these days.

All of this leads us to wonder aloud whether all of the money sunk into Olympic preparation, and the hype that it engenders, acts as some kind of Keynesian stimulus for endorsed athletes and shoe companies.  It's likely the worst, least efficient stimulus imaginable, but it looks like at least somebody is being enriched by the Games.  It's just not the taxpayers of the UK footing the bill, nor the fans paying to watch in person, nor the hapless schmucks in the USA forced to watch nightly coverage on NBC.

August 8, 2012

Link Hive #6; or Red Planet, Schmed Planet

It's time for another Link Hive! in bullet form.  Despite the Olympian-themed posts recently (at least one more is on its way), this one is dedicated solely to Mars, the reddest of the planets. (That' because it is camera shy and embarrasses easily.)  Enjoy.
  • Apparently, despite certain wings of the politisphere whinging* over budgets, those eggheads over at NASA really do get stuff to work.  In all seriousness, the successful touchdown of the new Mars rover is a very big deal.  Go read this article over on about how incredibly hard it was to safely land the over 2000 lb. Curiosity rover on Mars.  With obesity being as common as it is will we see sky cranes for everyone in the near future?
Retrorockets aren't rockets from the 80's (image source: NASA JPL)
  • One of the first view of Mars sent from the Curiosity rover.  Here's an entire image gallery on NASA's website.
A snap from Curiosity's back-up camera. Just like the one on your Lexus. (image source: NASA JPL)
  • Interplanetary easter egg hunt: Curiosity rover spells out "JPL" in Morse code with every tire revolution.
File:Curiosity wheel pattern morse code.png
J: - - -, P: .- -., L: -.. Engineers love hiding easter eggs. (source: NASA JPL)
  • If one NASA probe photos another NASA probe, do they both get sucked into an infinite self-referential loop?  Or is this the space probe equivalent of bumping into someone you know at a strip club?  How embarrassing!  This is a shot taken by the Mars Reconnasaince Orbiter (MRO) while Curiosity's drag chute was deployed.
Caught ya on camera!  This one's going to your wife. (source: NASA JPL)
*Someone has been bloody-well watching too much BBC. -ed.

August 7, 2012

Pic = 1000 wds., or A Cultural/Political Rorschach Test

Since there is still a bit of an Olympic mood wafting about the offices of DI from yesterday's post, let's look at another side of the games: the inevitable juxtaposition of different cultures, politics, and gender roles among the participating nations.  I found a really awesome photo on the Boston Globe's Big Picture blog, that perfectly captures this juxtaposition in a single frame.  This image can be a wonderful mirror to hold up to other people to get a glimpse of their worldview.

So, here's a fun game you can play with your friends and acquaintances.  First, show them the image below, then wait for a reaction.  I'm willing to bet you will get a host of responses that tell you a lot about the cultural and political biases of the observer.  What do you see in this image?  Hit the comments with your reactions if you would like to stir the pot.

Clash of cultures?  An inspiring image of unity? Sexism?  This image is fraught with symbolism.
(source: David Gray/Reuters)

August 6, 2012

We Really Are Living in the Future, or The Real Hero of the Games

You can have your Michael Phelps, your Andy Murray, and your Usain Bolt.  Oscar Pistorius is my new sports idol.  He personifies so many noble human qualities that it's hard to do the real person justice by trying to list them all here.  We'd all be a little better if we behaved more like Oscar.  WWOD?

I won't repeat a lot of what's been said about him already, but we can put to bed the whole myth that he somehow gets an advantage from his prosthetic legs.  Having years of experience designing high-performance sport implements with carbon fiber reinforced materials, as well as a few developing orthopedic braces for athletes, I think I can shed some unique insights on the "controversy" surround his inclusion in the Olympics.

First, despite what marketing execs have led you to believe, carbon fiber composites are not magic.  All that carbon fiber gives you is a very stiff, and a very strong material per unit of mass.  That allows engineers to design structures that are much lighter than their metallic counterparts, and much stronger and stiffer than their plastic counterparts.  From the simplest analytic point of view, Oscar's "legs" would be too heavy to be practical made from an alloy, or too weak make from just plastics.  It is only the combination of properties that composite materials have that allow his high-performance running legs to be fully realized.

The next question is inevitably, does it give him an advantage over biologic legs that most of us are born with.  There really is no simple way to answer that question, but the main point is that they do not.  The blade-like design of his prostheses act like a spring.  They simply store and return the energy that he generates on each stride.  Just like the muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones that he doesn't have would ordinarily.  The only possible advantage that I could imagine would be if he decided to "grow" several inches by ordering longer prostheses that were a little stiffer.  Theoretically, he would have a little more leverage with each stride (just like taller people do), but that raises ethical issues and any self-respecting doctor or prosthetist would refuse to go along.  Plus, he would simply have to train harder to generate more force to effectively load his longer legs anyway.  So, we'll call that a wash, hypothetical though it may be.

On the flip side, however, we can clearly see how he is disadvantaged by his prostheses: no ankle joints.  His blade-like legs only replicate the muscles of the lower leg, foot arch and ball.  While carbon fiber is strong and light, it is only so in one direction.  At present is would be extremely difficult to design a composite structure that mimics the flexibility and strength of the human ankle.  In order to do that we are probably talking about metal and/or plastic components, and we're back to the initial design problem: strength to weight ratio.  If you watched him run you could see he lacked the fluidity and agility of the other runners.  Pistorius' gait is more analogous to someone on stilts rather than a silky smooth world class sprinter.

Finally, we can instantly know the obvious truth that Oscar's legs provide him no advantage.  Just count the number of his competitors that have elected to become amputees to gain the same "advantage".

I don't mean in my explanation to minimize the amazing accomplishment of running world class 400m times as a double amputee.  And shame on the gatekeepers of international athletics for attempting to keep him out of competition for so long.  We have witnessed some remarkable achievements at these games, but none more so than Oscar Pistorius making the semifinals in the 400m sprint.  Here's hoping his team earn a medal in the relay.

August 3, 2012

Link Hive #5, or The Internet Is AllKindsOfAwesome

Just Science! links for today.  Don't worry they are awesome.

The Internet Map - This is one of the coolest projects that has ever tried to graphically display the entire internet.  (no, this little blog is too small to be rendered.  Not even the internet equivalent of the Hubble space telescope could resolve the tiny, quark-sized speck that this site represents.)

Japanese scientists have figured out how to get more energy out of entangled particles than is predicted by classical thermodynamics.  Take that!

More Japanese scientists, this time working for Panasonic, are working out clever ways to produce energy from atmospheric CO2.  Just like the plants do it.  Albert Gore just shed a solitary tear of joy.

Tailoring treatment to a cancer's unique genome is proving to be a powerful tool for oncologists.  I recently read a good book that touches on this technology.  That will have to be the next book review subject.

August 2, 2012

A Tempest in a Deep Fryer, or Don't Fall for Misdirection

I was trying to just let the noise fade into the background, when this nonsense invaded my personal space at work where I do my deepest thinking about anything other than sad, bigoted old white men...

 ...maybe you, dear reader, are somehow expecting me to wade into the maelstrom that has exploded over the comments of a grease-pusher.  Not gonna do it.

Of course, I could point out that we shouldn't be surprised that there are still, to this day, people that hold hateful, discriminatory ideas about groups of people that they have never met in the name of one religion or another.  Or, I could point out that the histrionics, righteous indignation, and the let's-freak-out-the-squares stunts being pulled by the aggrieved parties are not going to change anyone's minds.  I could even make an appeal to people's sense of good citizenship and scold everyone for not following the Golden Rule.  Something like, "Please refrain from saying unkind things about others, especially those who don't affect you in the least and are just trying to be treated like everyone else."  It'd be just wasted bandwidth.

You see, this is all just a carefully orchestrated stunt to distract us from something else.  Falling for political sleight-of-hand is something we too often fail to avoid.  And apparently, going on cable news and saying monstrously bigoted things is good for business.  Something about all publicity being good publicity.  I won't further that cause.  Not gonna do it.

August 1, 2012

What's With The Post Titles?, or Gratuitous Post That Is (Nearly) Content Free

[All of the textbook strategies for building an audience for a blog say that one should post daily. So, with that in mind here is another post* with almost no content.]

The editors and I would like to briefly open the curtain, and offer a peek behind the scenes at the inner workings of this little blog.  The reason: we occasionally get mail from the readers, and almost two of the regular readers of DI have asked, "Why are all the post titles so long?"  This is why:
Look! Is moose and squirrel.
The naming convention for the titles to all of our posts is an homage to the best, most subversive cartoon ever to air on television.  Even though it originally aired almost two decades before we were unleashed onto the world, it was a regular part of our Saturday morning regimen.  If you are still unfamiliar with the awesomeness that is The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, you must seek it out.  It will make you smile, and realize the genius of Jay Ward and his band of miscreants has influenced just about every good animated show since.  There would be no Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy, Spongebob, or South Park with out those great pioneers of animated satire.

*The real reason for this post was to commemorate racking up 2000 page views.  Hooray for us. - ed