Thursday, October 30, 2008

An Open Letter to French's

Dear Makers of French's Mustard:

I've got to give it to you guys, you really have embodied the American dream -- and you've done it with a name like "French's"! Seriously, you guys have to be laughing every time you take a check to bank -- the irony is just too delicious.

Much like the mustard you create every day. It's really amazing that you've been able to make this bright yellow substance and convince us all that it's "mustard," when around the world, people are spreading spicy, brown, seedy stuff all over their krauts.

But I digress. I didn't intend for this letter to spark off some kind of mustard war between yourselves and the Grey Poupons of the world. What I wanted to do was implore you to take a different kind of action; namely, get rid of that vinegar piss that comes out of your squeeze bottles whenever I'm trying to make a sandwich.

This is 2008, guys. There are iPhones, the Internet, and space-age polymers everywhere you look. You can't swing a dead cow around in this country without hitting a Wi-fi enabled hotspot. And yet, every time I want to make a goddamned roast beef sandwich, I have to suffer through the humiliation of one of your French's mustard squeeze bottles planting a diarrhea fart on my lunchmeat.

Get on this one, guys! Come on! I know you've got the money for it -- I haven't been to a July 4th barbecue and not seen a dozen of your mustard bottles everywhere, just waiting to make a PPPPFFFFTTTTTSSSH sound over someone's hot dog. Hire some good R&D guys and get rid of that crap.

Well, that's how I feel, and I wanted you all to know about it. I don't want to come across as hateful -- I'm merely suggesting you make an improvement to an already great product. Thanks for listening.



Lies and Bullshit: On the Campaign Trail, '08


Will it be Sen. Barack "Hussein" Obama, the shadowy character who has emerged out of nowhere, whose birth certificate no one can find? The Marxist, Muslim terrorist sympathizer with ties to political dissidents in Kenya and whose father might even be Malcolm X?

Or will it be Sen. John "Maverick" McCain, the cranky old Navy pilot who calls his wife the "C-word," abuses vacationers in Fiji with William Faulkner performances and whose hobbies have included crashing fighter jets?

Well, you read it here first, folks: the answer is neither, because neither of the two men described above exist.

Phony stories about presidential candidates are nothing new. Rumors circulated about the Clinton family in the lead up to the 1992 election, and George W. Bush was the subject of much fantastical speculation in 2000.

But in a world of news driven by sites like and the Drudge Report, these idiotic fictions are getting harder and harder to keep out of the mainstream discussion. It's end users who determine what the news cycle is -- they click on stories, moving them up in the "most viewed" list, or they forward vicious emails around the country. Phony news makes it from coast to coast before the first pot of breakroom coffee has percolated.

For anyone interested, it's usually easy enough to demonstrate these "email forward" stories as blatant falsehoods -- you've just got to wander over to or, both non-partisan sites devoted to identifying blogospheric baloney. But as easy as it is, and as much time as I've spent trying to convince people that Obama probably isn't the antichrist, these stories persist.

First and foremost, I think a large part of it has to do with wish-thinking. We are, by nature, not particularly scientific when it comes to things we want to believe. If I were a McCain supporter (I'm not), my initial reaction to a story that painted Obama in a negative light would be to believe it, and the same would go vice-versa. We seem tuned to filter out information that doesn't fit nicely with the worldview we already have, and anything we find that supports what we already think is automatically attractive.

So I do understand that element, but only to an extent. Some of these phony campaign stories are getting ridiculous -- beyond the point where it's easy to explain them away as simply fitting into existing worldviews. Questions about Obama's citizenship are still circulating -- even though there's plenty of evidence to show he was born in the United States, and none that he wasn't (for a great run-down of a few of these "unreported" stories, check out this item on Politico. My buddy Brad sent it to me). Attacks on McCain's military record are similarly out of order -- you can disagree with the guy, but there is simply no call whatsoever to question the integrity of his service in the Navy.

And I don't think it's the candidates themselves who are responsible for these slurs against each other -- in some cases, it's the people working on their campaigns, such as the McCain campaigner who scratched a backwards "B" in her face in Western Pennsylvania and claimed she'd been assaulted by a black man "enraged" by her McCain/Palin sticker.

But in most cases, it's just the "Joe Six-Packs" around the country, trying to weigh in on the election, thinking he or she has just found the next big story. We've arrived at the world Andy Warhol promised us, where everyone gets to be famous for 15 minutes. Normally, we seem content with viral YouTube videos, but during an election year, the contest seems to be finding out who can create the biggest, baddest meme about the election. And if it takes off, you're guaranteed press coverage... once something gets emailed enough, apparently there's no way for the networks to ignore it.

Maybe, though, it isn't about fame -- maybe it's because political campaigns are, considering the amount of hype and attention they get, perhaps some of the most boring things that go on in the world. Sure, there are the buses, the conventions, the whistle-stops and the stump speeches (and let's not forget the nail-biting debates). But to really get down to the nitty-gritty, what you're looking at is hundreds of pages of proposed tax plans and budgets. And who wants to read those? What these lies and exaggerations people are sending each other might be is a way they've found to superimpose a dramatic narrative onto something that actually bores them to tears. It's not as if everyone is making up their own stories -- but a lot of us are emailing them to all our friends. And maybe that just goes to show that we do want to participate in the election -- but that we've found the actual meat of it about as exciting as eating a bottle of Ritalin and then watching The English Patient.

Personally, I'm burnt out on it. I can't wait for Nov. 5. And I decided to STUDY this shit!


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Weekends are overrated

For a variety of reasons, I spent Friday night at home drinking too much wine, which resulted in a Saturday that was characterized on my part by a hangover and hatred of the universe.

That was unfortunate, because what I'd planned to do was work on/finish a paper that's due tomorrow in my world politics class -- our assignment was to pick a data set and write a paper about it. No guidelines were provided as to length, and there were no specific instructions on what to include in the paper -- "Everything" was about as good as it was going to get.

I'd never written a data paper before. Using a method not much better than throwing a dart at a spinning globe (I've heard people sometimes plan their vacations this way -- but maybe that's just in cartoons), I wound up picking a data set called "Extra-State Wars," part of the Correlates of War Data Project, based at the University of Michigan.

I won't bore you with the details of the paper -- which involved looking at an Excel spreadsheet of 108 cases with 35 variables each -- but if you want to read it, you can email me and I'll send it to you. Maybe you're an insomniac and need a little help falling asleep, I don't know.

Precious little of it got done Saturday, so I spent most of today (Sunday) pecking away at it. I have no idea of how to use most of what Microsoft Excel does, and the analysis software normally used to examine stuff like this was far away -- in Binghamton, which I didn't feel much like driving to. So instead, I printed off the 12 sheets needed to contain the whole set, taped them together, and stuck the whole thing to a wall in my room. I then used several high-lighters to mark parts of the data I felt were important, then counted them up and plugged them into a calculator (for special effect).

The result is a 16-page pile of paper and ink that represents what I think may be the most boring thing I've ever written (unless you count this post, which at least at this point is way shorter). An informal poll I did after I finished the rough draft (Dad read it) produced positive results -- the paper was described as "scholarly, I think" by 100 percent of the respondents who said they'd read it.

I have no idea how well it's going to go over with my professor. Like I said, he wasn't very specific about what he was looking for, so my aim was to show that I'd looked hard at the information and maybe drawn an inference or two from it. I'm unsure of what else to do with it, short of folding up the high-lighted, taped sheets currently hanging on my wall and handing that in.

The underlying point here is that I'm still working on re-adapting to "school mode." Writing isn't hard for me, but writing papers isn't really like writing, at least, not in the way I've been used to doing it for the past six years. It's hard not to feel useless, too, when what you really need to spend your days doing is reading books with complicated titles and articles pulled off JSTOR and Lexis-Nexus.

Don't get me wrong, I like my current field of study -- although it's maybe a bit different than I'd been expecting. I had this idea about political science in my head -- something of a cross between a civics class and sitting around in togas listening to Plato talk about "the Republic" -- and it turns out that there's a lot more numbers and talk of "scientific method" involved than I'd initially expected.

Which is fine -- it's making me think in ways I hadn't before, which, I'm led to believe, is the whole point of "school."


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Cherry picking

It's impossible to tell what's actually going on anymore.

Fox is hammering on Obama's connection to Weather Underground founder Bill Ayers, while (most) other news outlets seem concerned with the report of Palin's "abuse of power" in the "Troopergate" firing in Alaska (by the way, and I'm sure Bill Maher's already hit on this in his "New Rules" segments, but can we quit naming scandals with this "-gate" scheme? Watergate was actually the NAME OF THE HOTEL!). Meanwhile, Obama's supporters have dismissed the allegations of the candidate's connection with Ayers, just as Fox and the GOPers have already begun minimizing the significance of the Palin fiasco.

Examples of the different responses:

On the Huffington Post this morning, a headshot of Palin is accompanied by huge, red "Drudge Report" style headlines screeching the news that the probe has found her "guilty of abuse of power."

On National Review Online's The Corner, editor Kathryn Jean Lopez posted under "Confused" that she's puzzled by the furor over the report, since Palin apparently didn't do anything illegal.'s Hugh Hewitt ignored the Palin debacle and drew more attention to the Obama-Ayers connection, which is what some of the Corner posters are talking about this morning.

And that's just three major blogs. There are plenty more.

So if the media were bad before, they're worse now -- blogs, of course, have always led the charge, and now there are so many of them on either side that people can read enough of one angle to feel like they've actually got a clear picture of what's going on. Well, if all you read is Michelle Malkin, Hugh Hewitt, and National Review, you haven't gotten a well-rounded picture. The same goes if you spend all day on the Huffington Post and DailyKos.

Me, I have some reading to get done for my world politics seminar Monday (although not much, since we didn't get to much of what I'd read already last week), but in the meantime, I'm going to put together another cheesy horror movie live-blog. That'll probably be forthcoming later today.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Bad news for Palin

Looks like the panel looking into Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's alleged abuse of power haven't come down on her side:

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CNN) -- Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin abused her power as Alaska's governor by trying to get her ex-brother-in-law fired from the state police, a state investigator's report concluded Friday.

"Gov. Palin knowingly permitted a situation to continue where impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda," the report states.
This is not good news for the McCain campaign, particularly since we're so close to V-day. McCain's already trailing Barack Obama in the national polls, which stand tonight around 51.9-46.6 percent. His attacks on Obama's past association with William Ayers seem to have backfired, and according to this story, his hard-core followers are none too pleased... campaign journalists have reported having racial slurs yelled at them, and during a Palin stump speech earlier this week, a member of the audience screamed "Kill him!" loud enough for the microphones to pick up when the governor mentioned Obama and Ayers. "Rage" seems to be growing in the GOP base.

Eight years ago, Bill Clinton's eight-year presidency came to an end, but the protracted legal battle over the Gore/Bush vote lasted into December -- when the Supreme Court determined that Bush had won in Florida. There wasn't any kind of immediate shock or catharsis on November 5, 2000 -- nobody really would know what was going to happen for another month or so. I'm hoping we avoid a repeat of that fiasco this time around, but the tenor of the campaign has turned even more vicious this time around, it seems.

Today was the deadline for voter registration in New York, and a friend and I went to make sure we'd gotten registered. 2000 was the last time I voted -- I was in Ohio and in school, and I'd registered so I could vote for George W. Bush. That was a long time ago, and since then I finished college, did five years in the Army, worked as a reporter briefly, and have started on a new degree -- and my personal politics in the meantime have done a 180-degree turn from the conservatism I left undergrad with.

In all honesty, I agree with the late George Carlin as far as voting goes, more than anyone else. He made the point that the only time you have no reason to complain is when you DO vote... he, on the other hand, stayed home on election day, and therefore can't be held responsible for any of the incompetent idiots voted into office; whereas the chumps who go out and pulled the levers are the ones who have no right to complain about what they'd done.

I don't have much of a point here, and if I did, it was to go out and vote this November -- but I managed to shoot that point squarely in the foot with that last paragraph, huh? That notwithstanding, I do think it's important to cast votes in elections -- plus, you won't just be voting for the president, but for the state representatives, district attorneys, judges, coroners, mayors, and whoever else is looking for a job running your government. At least don't give the bad ones a free pass.