Quantum Meruit

As much information as you deserve

Month: July, 2012

What Does Aaron Sorkin Think of Women?

Here’s a thought exercise: after six episodes of The Newsroom, has a female character done anything right? In episode six alone, two of the three major female characters made big mistakes. Will McAvoy (a man) soundly put Mackenzie MacHale in her place after she went on a tirade about how Will never really intended to marry her. Will then showed her the engagement ring he had bought years before, kept in his desk drawer. Then, Sloan Sabbith insisted that a Japanese nuclear official’s translator was lying and revealed off-the-record information during the broadcast. Sloan asks Will (a man) for help, expressly disclaiming Mackenzie’s help.

The Newsroom is my first Aaron Sorkin experience, but many others recognized that Sorkin has a woman problem:

Even if you are a Sorkin fan, you don’t need to be blind to the pattern that continues to emerge in his television work and in The Social Network, in which the female characters are represented either as crazy dragon-lady stereotypes (such as Eduardo Saverin’s Asian girlfriend who is so nuts that she sets fire to things), mindless hangers-on, or in sequences such as Mark Zuckerberg berating Rooney Mara’s character.

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NBC to America: We Think You’re Dumb

If it’s not about America, then Americans won’t care. I think this falls in line with NBC’s sentiment from last week: “Americans want dumb sitcoms with laugh-tracks.” Basically, NBC hates you.

[NBC Responds: We Removed The Opening Ceremony Memorial To Terrorism Victims Because The Tribute Wasn’t About America.]

The Tax Gambit

In the summer of 2001, life was really good. Business was booming, housing prices were going up, and the worst thing that President George W. Bush had done so far was tell a bunch of green peaceniks that they couldn’t see who was on Cheney’s energy tax force.

President Bush entered office with a significant budget surplus (note that Clinton Budget Surplus Deniers engage in a bait-and-switch with the words debt — which did not decrease — and deficit, of which there was none in Clinton’s final year).

Ignoring John Maynard Keynes, Bush decided to use this economic boom-time to give everyone a tax break. The Bush Tax Cuts lowered the tax burden at all tax brackets by about 3%.

The tax cuts, by their terms, were to expire on December 31, 2010. The Democrats’ plan was to let the cuts expire for the highest income bracket but retain the cuts for the middle income brackets. You might remember this as the time when Congressional Republican showed that they were awful and Democrats showed that they were spineless. John Boehener & Co. tried to prevent Democrats from letting the cuts expire by holding hostage unemployment insurance extensions.

In the end, each side put the issue on the back burner. Democrats got unemployment insurance, and the tax cuts were extended until December 31, 2012.

Whoa, geez! That’s soon! And this is an election year!

If no one does anything, tax rates go up for everyone. Democrats should be pushing this angle: deadlock in the Senate; i.e., the ludicrous situation where 60 votes are needed to get anything done, will result in higher tax rates for everyone. Republicans (who care about the debt only on the spending side) are content to let the tax cuts continue and continue blaming the Obama Administration for piling on debt.

In the alternative, and I am not making this up, Republicans explicitly would love to extend the tax cuts for the highest incomes and let the tax cuts expire for everyone else:

In all, the Republican plan would extend tax cuts for 2.7 million affluent families while allowing tax breaks to expire for 13 million on the bottom of the income spectrum, tax analysts say. An impact analysis released Monday by Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation said a permanent extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts would cut taxes on households with more than $1 million of annual income by $74,505 next year. The Democratic proposal would cut taxes for those same households by $7,055.

Democrats could, theoretically, call for a vote on their plan and then demand that the Republicans explain to their constituents — especially their lower-income constituents — why nothing got done, and why their average tax bill is going up by $1,600. Right now, they should push the Republican plan; i.e., the richer get richer, while the poor get poorer.

It’s hard to tell sometimes whether Republicans are executing a master plan created in Mordor to destroy the American Middle Class. It could be that these policies are all happening independently of one another because they tend to come from the same free market YOYO (“you’re on your own”) philosophy. Due to Republicans’ conveniently-timed battle on disclosure and information, we just don’t know how much money Sauron has donated to SuperPACs.

Significant Penalties

$60 million in fines and cancelation of Penn State’s football victories between 1998 and 2011 is almost as good as disbanding the football team. Maybe better, in fact. The football team lives on, but with an appropriate amount of shame that will serve as a reminder that a sports craze — and the significant amount of money the university derived therefrom — should never trump a crime.

I’m also pleased that the NCAA revoked Paterno’s 2011 Gerald R. Ford Leadership Award. Paterno’s actions during Jerry Sandusky’s tenure as a pedophile were the opposite of leadership.

Guns Make It Really Easy for People to Kill People

After last week’s shooting in Aurora, Colo., the National Rifle Association has wisely remained mum. Someone must be holding on to Wayne LaPierre’s leash, which is good for the NRA and for everyone else. Speaking out about the necessity of guns after a horrendous, gun-facilitated massacre is not the wisest thing the NRA could have done.

There is truth to the NRA’s bumper sticker slogan that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” but guns make it a whole lot easier for people to kill people. The NRA’s slogan works for nuclear bombs, too: sure, it was people who built and deployed the atomic bomb that killed 70,000 people in a few seconds. But the only way to kill 70,000 in the timespan of a few seconds is with an atomic bomb. How about a new slogan? “Guns don’t kill people, but it sure helps when you want to kill people.”

An AR-15 — the civilian version of the Army’s M-16 — took out 12 people and injured dozens more in a few minutes. Reportedly, it was only because his AR-15 jammed and he had to resort to a handgun that there weren’t more deaths. Certainly even the NRA knows that their slogan is intellectually dishonest: if James Holmes had been armed with a knife, 12 people wouldn’t be dead. At least the NRA has the intelligence to keep its trap shut right now.

On ‘Authenticity’ and Why I Just Want a Burrito That Tastes Good

Looking for a burrito? You might go to Yelp to help you find a taqueria, and ideally, you want a taqueria with high ratings. Bad restaurants get low ratings for lots of reasons: the people who work there are nasty, the food is bad, the place is dirty. On many reviews, though, there’s a reason that’s never valid.

“It’s not authentic.”

Authentic, in its second definition (the first one, “authoritative,” is obsolete), means “worthy of acceptance as conforming to or based on fact,” “conforming to an original,” or “made or done the same way as an original.” Something can be authentic in the sense that it should be taken to be real; for example, a person’s signature can be authentic — as opposed to a forgery — meaning that the person whose signature that is can be said to have endorsed the document’s contents. But the second and third sub-definitions for “authentic” imply that something needn’t be real in the sense that it is the genuine article. It could be an authentic Ming vase, in the sense that the vase really is from the Chinese Ming dynasty. Or the vase could be authentic in the sense that it’s made in the same way as a vase from the Ming dynasty. The latter, however, we would say is a “reproduction.”

Returning to Mexican food, the complaint about a lack of authenticity seems to fall into this third sub-definition; namely, that some American Mexican food is an unfaithful reproduction of the food actually made in Mexico. Cilantro rice and whole-wheat tortillas are not authentic. The word authentic, though, stands alone, as though it carries with it a vast amount of meaning, so no explanation is necessary. Certainly a word like “Holocaust” needs no further explanation, but authentic is not a self-defining word.

Reading a Yelp review of a local taqueria, one reviewer happily notes that a particular taqueria has the “[b]est authentic [M]exican food this side of the [B]ay,” and then proceeds — without irony — to tout the vegetarian burrito. Is the reviewer unaware that “vegetarian” is as far from Mexican authenticity as Mars is from Venus? Or is the reviewer misapplying the word “authentic”? Or, better still, is “authentic” a word devoid of meaning? I’m not picking on this reviewer merely to pick on her; I’m using this as an example of how “authentic” means nothing.

It means nothing for several reasons.

The first reason is that “authenticity” is in the eye of the beholder. A person might claim that Buca di Beppo, a national chain of “family-style” Italian restaurants, is not “authentic.” But authentic in what way? Certainly the food itself is not Italian. It probably comes from a restaurant supply store before it’s cooked (if indeed it’s cooked and not, in the fashion of national chains with large menus, defrosted and microwaved). The recipes could be Italian. But what does “Italian” mean? Italy didn’t exist until 1861. Before then, the nation known as Italy was several nation-states in close geographic proximity: Rome, Tuscany, Sardinia, Sicily, Sardinia, Parma, and so on. Buca di Beppo certainly isn’t authentic Sardinian food, but it might be close to authentic Sicilian food, which relies on large portions and plenty of meat.

Second, saying something is not authentic doesn’t communicate anything useful about food. Did it taste good? Was it overcooked? Undercooked? Too many spices? Too few spices? How was the plating? Not enough stuff on the plate? We don’t know, because “authentic” doesn’t tell us anything except what we already knew: that is wasn’t prepared by a Mexican grandmother back in Oaxaca. Even so, perhaps we don’t know that it wasn’t prepared in such a way, and the speaker means to say that the food did not conform to the norms of the country from which it came. If I went to a French restaurant, I’d expect that “French” means lots of cream sauces, not cheeseburgers. If I didn’t get any cream sauces, I’d feel cheated. But “French restaurant” doesn’t mean “French recipes” per se. It could mean “the French style.” The authenticity obsession doesn’t tell us this, either. In the aforementioned French restaurant, I’d be doing a lot better to say that there weren’t enough cream sauces than I would to say it wasn’t authentic.

Third, saying something is not authentic doesn’t communicate what people really mean. In this TED Talk, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of a major spaghetti sauce company that marketed “authentic” Italian spaghetti sauce, meaning that it was similar to what Italians used. Italian spaghetti sauce is pretty thin, consisting of just tomato paste, water, and spices. The spaghetti sauce company did taste tests and discovered that, even though customers said they wanted “authentic” spaghetti sauce, they preferred to eat sauce with chunks of things in it — peppers, onions, vegetables, and so on. But that didn’t make sense; at the same time that customers said they wanted “authentic” sauce, they also wanted a sauce that was decidedly inauthentic.

So the pasta sauce company took a chance and relied on what customers ate, instead of what they said, and made pasta sauce with chunks of things. The sauce flew off the shelves. This fun anecdote demonstrates that, when people say “authentic,” they either don’t mean that in the sense that they’re indifferent to whether food is authentic, or they mean something else (likely, “this doesn’t conform to what I think Mexican food should taste like”).

Lastly, authenticity is frequently narcissistic. Saying something — Mexican food, for example — is authentic is a code word for an entire sentence: “I’ve either been to Mexico, or know esoteric things about Mexico; therefore, I’m in a position to judge whether this food is like the food I knew about from visiting Mexico or learning about Mexico.” Really, it’s the speaker inviting himself to talk a lot or it’s an opportunity to one-up someone else on knowledge (“If you knew as much about Mexico as I do, then you’d know that this is nothing like the food in Mexico”).

Now, “authentic” could be saved yet. It could mean “I’ve had food from Germany made by German grandmothers, and I enjoyed it, and I don’t enjoy this food.” But you probably don’t mean that you didn’t enjoy it because it wasn’t made by German grandmothers (which you already knew). You either didn’t enjoy it because the food from Germany was normatively better for some reason, or you preferred the way that food was prepared for some reason, and don’t prefer the way this food was prepared. Again, because the word “authenticity” is ambiguous, we have know what of knowing what the speaker means by invoking it.

So, please, world, let’s dispense with “authentic” as a descriptor for anything that’s not a signature or that’s not actually a vase made during the Chinese Ming dynasty. It does a disservice to language usage and it makes finding lunch a whole lot harder.

NYT: No ‘Militants’ Language This Time

While this article still relies heavily on anonymous sources, it thankfully doesn’t say that fifteen militants were killed. Perhaps the Times has finally taken to heart its own reporting on the fact that the Obama Administration counts all military-age males in a strike zone as “militants” when its anonymous sources report who was killed in a drone strike. (Also note that “officials” are magically able to distinguish between militants and non-militants even though the bodies are charred beyond recognition.)

[15 Killed in Pakistan by U.S. Drones Aimed at Taliban – NYTimes.com.]

Richard Posner: Kind of Awesome

Judge Richard Posner is kind of awesome. He is beyond simple “conservative” or “liberal” labels; he just believes what he believes.

[Federal Judge Richard Posner: The GOP Has Made Me Less Conservative : It’s All Politics : NPR.]

Shout This from the Mountaintops

Remember the Fast and Furious Scandal? Remember how the ATF bought guns for Mexican cartels with the intent to track them, and then lost a bunch of them, resulting in the death of a Border Patrol agent at the hand of one of those guns?

Remember how that last sentence is a lie?

In a lengthy investigative piece that, for some reason, has not reached the front page of every magazine and newspaper in this country, Fortune magazine has discovered that most of the public “knowledge” about the Fast and Furious program is partially true at best and an outright lie at worst. Another thing the public doesn’t know: most of this information came from a single, disgruntled ATF agent. The most astounding thing you don’t know? The gun that the Border Patrol agent was killed with was lost on that disgruntled agent’s watch.

The Forbes article clears up a lot of questions about Fast and Furious and thoroughly puts to bed misconceptions about it:

  • The agents involved in the program didn’t purchase guns for members of Mexican gangs; rather, they were aware that Mexican gang-members were paying others to purchase the guns and then smuggle the guns to them (the gang-members)
  • Why didn’t the agents arrest these people? A couple of reasons:
    • The law in Arizona, where the program was headquartered, is fairly liberal (in the sense of breadth, not politics) with its gun laws. In Arizona, all you need to buy a gun is an ID and a background check. No waiting period, no permit required, and no limitation on how many guns a single person can buy.
    • What about suspect activity? “Voth and his agents began investigating a group of buyers, some not even old enough to buy beer, whose members were plunking down as much as $20,000 in cash to purchase up to 20 semiautomatics at a time, and then delivering the weapons to others,” the article notes. Shouldn’t this be suspicious? Yes, it should be. Which is why the ATF contacted the U.S. Attorney in Arizona. The U.S. Attorney’s office, however, declined to investigate. Why is that?
    • The criminal statute in question requires the United States to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that the purchaser of the guns intends for the guns to be used to commit a crime.
  • What about the allegations that ATF agents were “walking” guns (giving them to informants and then tracking them in the hope of finding their ultimate destination)?
    • Actually, that happened only once. John Dodson, an ATF agent who leaked the Fast and Furious information to the press, took charge of this single instance of gun-walking and royally screwed it up. Not only did he not follow proper procedure (he should have gotten approval from at least an Assistant U.S. Attorney), but he failed to follow up correctly. Standard procedure was to stay with the guns until they were found. Dodson lost track of six pistols and, instead of finding them, he went on vacation.
  • The emails that purport to show a schism in the ATF unit in Arizona over gun walking have been mischaracterized. There was never an argument over whether the unit should engage in gun walking; except for the one time Dodson screwed up, they never did gun walking. The arguments were over management of the unit. Voth, the agent in charge of the unit, received nothing but resentment from other members of the unit over his administrative policies, including rotating who would be on call over the weekends.
  • ATF agents themselves, some of whom were personal enemies of Voth and others of whom fundamentally disagree with federal gun control procedures, leaked information about Voth, putting his family in danger.

This article is a must-read for anyone interested in the Fast and Furious saga. The only question is why no one else is picking up on this. The negative coverage of Fast and Furious has been a boon for conservatives, who have always hated gun controls laws, and have been looking for an embarrassing Obama administration gaffe.