Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Anybody Have $200 They Want To Lend Me?

If you're not currently watching Nathan For You, you need to remedy that situation post haste. It's one of those shows where the premise sounds terrible, but it's only because all of the comedy comes from the execution. The short version is the show is centered around Nathan Fielder, whom the show's intro assures us graduated from a top Canadian business school with really good grades. As such, Nathan For You is a show about him going to struggling small businesses and reinventing them a la all those reality shows with that exact premise. The hook is that Nathan's advice is uniformly terrible, typically involving incredibly outlandish schemes that result in no business. The humor comes from the time worn observation that people are significantly more willing to do what you tell them, even if it makes no sense, if you have a camera crew with you. Witness last night's genius episode in which a lawyer, ostensibly believing this is just all for the cameras, signs a waiver without reading it, only to be told a short time later he has just signed a legally-binding contract in which he assumes all legal responsibility for anything the show may do (the scene of an actual, accredited lawyer realizing what he's done and physically fighting to get the contract from Nathan is hilarious).

Actually, last night's episodes may have been one of the best half hours of television I've ever watched in my life, which is saying quite a bit given the inordinate amount of time I spend watching television. Last night's episode was the payoff to a bit that captivated the news cycle and internet for a day or two this past year: Dumb Starbucks. It turns out Dumb Starbucks was an idea to drum up business for a struggling local coffee shop by exploiting a loophole in parody law that allows one to use corporate logos as long as they're being made fun of (essentially...I presume the actual law is slightly more complicated than that).

I don't want to spoil too much of what happens, because you should seriously go watch the damn episode this very second. But one small part I will reveal is that Nathan is advised by the hapless lawyer that he has a much stronger claim to parody with Dumb Starbucks if he establishes himself as a parody artist (the logic being people would associate him with parody, thus making his claim of parody in court much more plausible. Kinda like how no one is going to assume Pharrell is the one ripping off Weird Al).

So amongst the many things he does to establish himself as a parody artist, Nathan rents out a space and has an art show of his parody art. Which mostly consists of terrible puns on corporate logos. And now those pieces are up for sale on ebay with the proceeds going to a non-profit that provides education for homeless youth.

Perhaps you're interested in a beautiful TGIFart sign?

Or perhaps a disturbing advertisement for 1906 Flags theme park?

But to me, the piece to win them all, and with the bidding at a mere $177.50 as of this writing, would be the cups and kippas combo of Jamba Jews:

There are very few things a fella actually needs, but I think I may have just found one of them...

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Quick Bit on Gaza

One of the most powerful moments I've ever witnessed regarding the Israeli/Palestinian hostilities was from a young Palestinian man at a panel discussion of some sort I had organized as an undergrad. While the conflict wasn't the central topic of the panel, eventually someone asked him about it. Unfortunately I can't do justice to his eloquent discussion of the situation, but the part that always stuck with me was when he was describing the founding of Israel as a necessity, given what had happened in the Holocaust, he argued the Jewish people needed a homeland where they could be assured some measure of safety. But the problem is (again, he phrased this much more eloquently), that the leaders of Israel are essentially undermining the entire justification for the existence of the state by turning around and enacting such massive, racist violence on a different oppressed peoples.

Obviously he wasn't drawing a one-to-one comparison between the actions of the Nazis and the actions of Israeli hawks (to do so would be absurd), but he was getting at how the latter uncomfortably apes some of the detestable practices of the former. I was reminded of that this morning while reading this short piece from Glenn Greenwald, in which he notes the recent incredibly offensive statement of Benjamin Netanyahu on how Palestinians only trot out the "telegenically dead" bears a striking resemblance to something said years earlier:

Benjamin Netanyahu, yesterday, on CNN, addressing worldwide sympathy for the civilian victims of Israeli violence in Gaza:
They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can. They use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead, the better.

Joseph Goebbels, November 16, 1941, essay in Das Reich, addressing Germany sympathy for German Jews forced to wear yellow stars:
The Jews gradually are having to depend more and more on themselves, and have recently found a new trick. They knew the good-natured German Michael in us, always ready to shed sentimental tears for the injustice done to them. One suddenly has the impression that the Berlin Jewish population consists only of little babies whose childish helplessness might move us, or else fragile old ladies. The Jews send out the pitiable. They may confuse some harmless souls for a while, but not us. We know exactly what the situation is.
Again, as Greenwald points out, to say the two are the same is absurd, but to deny the uncomfortable way in which Netanyahu is pretty much saying the exact same thing as Goebbels means you're being willfully blind. And any time you're words match up with those of Goebbels, it does not reflect particularly well on whatever point you're trying to make...

Friday, July 25, 2014

Chivalry, Feminism, and Ray Rice Beating His Fiancee Unconscious

If you follow sports at all, you know that this week the NFL handed down the punishment for Ray Rice, who was caught on camera dragging his then-fiancee/now-wife's unconscious body out of an elevator after he had beaten her unconscious. The punishment was a suspension of two games. To put this is in perspective, Browns WR Josh Gordon is suspended the entire season for testing positive for marijuana use a second time. To put it really into perspective, the punishment for a first failed test for marijuana is 4 games. Or to put it into sickening perspective, the NFL believes that the recreational use of marijuana is at least twice as bad as beating your wife unconscious.

As a feminist I'm obviously pretty opposed to beating a woman into unconsciousness (though to be fair, as a bleeding-heart hippie I'm opposed to beating anyone into unconsciousness). But I'm also uncomfortable with a lot of the sports world reaction that views this as bad because the victim was a woman. Never hit a woman for any reason I've seen about a million times. If it was "never hit anyone for any reason," I'd be fine with it, but it's not. Instead, so many are denouncing one sexist act with a different (albeit more of an opposite side of the coin type of thing) sexist worldview, one in which women are tiny, delicate flowers unable to fend for themselves and must be protected by big, strong men.

As you can tell from my disdainful tone, I obviously don't buy that line of logic, albeit obviously agreeing with those folks that Rice never should have done this. But it's not because she's a woman, it's for two reasons -- 1) she was his intimate partner, and 2) there's an amazing difference in physical size between the two.

On the first point, while all violence is bad, intimate partner violence is especially pernicious for many reasons. Obviously there are the physical effects, but also the psychological effects of someone you believe to love you and have your best interests at heart treating you in such a manner. And of course, we know this was not an isolated incident. Sure, I don't know either of these people, but I do know about intimate partner violence, as one of my close colleagues is among the leading experts in North America on the subject. And what we've learned from the scientific study of intimate partner violence is that it does not come out of nowhere and is never a single, isolated incident. By the time it gets to the point where you think nothing of beating your partner unconscious, you've already hit them multiple times. So to put Rice's slap on the wrist into even more context, this was the punishment meted out to someone we have every reason to believe (and no reason not to believe) is a repeat abuser.

But the second point is really where I diverge from the "don't hit girls" (these folks almost always use the term "girls" instead of "women," which I think speaks volumes about how they view the situation). And not disagree in the incredibly disgraceful way ESPN commentators have in which they keep raising the issue that maybe she was asking for it. Because some troglodytes defending Rice have suggested that maybe she hit him first, apparently justifying him beating her unconscious. But look at any picture of the two and you'll notice something obvious: Rice, the professional football player, is a big, muscular dude (5'9", 195 lbs, to be exact). His wife, on the other hand, is normal human size. This is why it goes from simple assault to a much more pernicious problem; if his partner was someone who could actually kick his ass, like say Ronda Rousey, and she was punching him, then sure it makes sense for him to defend himself physically. But the sheer size difference between Rice and his partner is what makes it so horrible, the gender doesn't really matter. It would be just as shockingly horrible had Rice beaten a man (or anyone of any gender) that much smaller than him.

tl;dr: It's not horrible just because he hit a woman. It's horrible because he beat his partner who was much physically smaller than him. We can condemn his violence without having to imply (or explicitly state, as many have) that women are incapable of defending themselves and need to be protected by men at all times.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Derek Jeter is Smelly and Stupid

In a perfect world, I wouldn't hate Derek Jeter. No one would. But no one would particularly love him, either. He would be remembered as an above-average hitting and below-average fielding short stop who put together a nice career (and by saying his defense is below-average is putting it nicely: his fielding is easily outshone by Adam Everett. Who? Exactly). But as Will Leitch so excellently points out, he's not allowed to be just another ball player. Instead, somewhere along the line, Jeter became representative of everything that gives Bob Costas a tiny li'l boner, and sports writers have made him into an emblem of everything the sport is supposed to be. And of course, the fact that he plays in the nation's largest media market has everything to do with his veneration. As Drew Magary points out, it's not just that Jeter allows the old fossils who write about baseball to wax rhapsodic about a better time in the game (you know, the time when those uppity negroes weren't allowed in, when popping amphetamines was just part of business, and when being a violent, racist alcoholic made you into a legend), but he also allows New Yorkers to jerk themselves off to how wonderful and special New york city is.

So instead of being treated like the overall slightly-above-average player he is, he has been turned into a demigod. One so important that the entirety of last night's All Star game was dedicated to him. A man so above the game that the announcing crew in the booth had already awarded him the MVP in the first inning, and could barely contain their disgust when the award was actually given to a deserving player. A man so important that while Glenn Perkins was pitching a perfect 9th inning for the game-winning save while playing for his home-town team in his home-town stadium, the on-field performance is completely ignored so we can continue to discuss number 2. A man so God-like that the opposing pitcher had to apologize in-game for having the audacity to admit what everyone knew: that he threw the old man (who is hitting terribly this season) an easy pitch so he could get a hit in his last All Star game. But no, to admit he did what everyone was expecting him to do and what everyone clearly saw him do with their own eyes would be to diminish the achievements of THE CAPTAIN©.

And this is why the man is so hated by large swaths of America (and why one beautiful fan made all of Minnesota proud by chanting "Over-rated!" loud enough for the cameras to pick up before Jeet's first at-bat). Because anyone who knows anything about how baseball and especially the baseball media work, knows that had Jeter played for the Twins (or the Astros, or the Brewers, or the White Sox, or the Mariners, etc.) that he would never be venerated to this extent. Instead, he might actually be judged fairly, seen as a pretty good player who stuck around for a long time, thus allowing him to pile up gaudy career stats (though had he not played for such a stacked NY team that allowed him over a hundred more at-bats per season than the average player, he probably never would have put up such numbers).

But he isn't judged fairly. He's THE CAPTAIN. He's Number 2. He's the guy you're supposed RE2PECT (I believe it's pronounced "re-two-pect," but I could be wrong). So the rest of us, the ones who see the player instead of the mythical God, grow weary of the constant praise. Eventually the weariness turns to exhaustion, the exhaustion to frustration, and the frustration to hate. So to all you Jeter-fanatics, it's your fault we hate him.

Hilariously Perfect Update:
Multiple outlets have complained that during the All Star game there was no tribute to Tony Gwynn, an all-time great who passed away recently. Well, apparently there was no tribute because Major League Baseball "did not want to slight anyone by singling out one individual." In completely un-related news, Derek Jeter was mentioned a mere 100 times during that same broadcast.

Monday, July 07, 2014

The Criminology of Baseball

Something I always highlight in teaching criminal justice courses is the fact that our criminal justice system (cjs), best summed up by Bill Bragg, is "not a court of justice but a court of law."The point being not so much that our cjs is a place where the pigs don't ever give anyone a break, but instead the less politically-loaded truth that courts are not a place where all involved seek the truth of a situation so that justice may be most effectively delivered, but is actually a place where two parties fight within the narrow confines of our myriad laws to get the best result as they define it (e.g. longer sentence for prosecution, shorter for defense). The grand point being, as I often explain to my students, having the truth on one's side in a criminal case is nice, but it's far from the most important factor in deciding criminal cases. If given the choice between being empirically innocent and having a really good lawyer, chose the lawyer every single time.

Sports are a great venue for demonstrating this principle, as the rules systems of most major sports are clearly modeled upon (and generally follow the logic of) our criminal justice system. But unlike our criminal justice system, we typically have video of the incident in question, often from a multitude of angles. As such, we typically know what actually happened (unlike in criminal cases in the real world). And yet, much like in our actual cjs, what actually happened is less important than how the rules set up to govern the process say the claim must be resolved.

Take this play from last week's As/Blue Jays game. The link has both a description of the play, and more importantly, video of it, so I highly recommend you go look at that. For those too lazy, here's a quick summation (for those who don't follow sports, skip this paragraph): the situation was the As had the bases loaded when their batter hit the ball to the first baseman. The Blue Jays first baseman fields the ball and attempts to tag the runner moving to second. The ump signals that he has missed the tag, so he throws home for the force out. Importantly, the catcher doesn't bother tagging the runner coming home, because it's a force play, so no tag is necessary. He clearly had plenty of time to make a tag, as the runner was still several feet away, but again, it wasn't necessary since in the video you can clearly see the catcher watching the first base ump signal the tag was not made.

The As manager then appealed the call at first base, and video replay shows the tag was indeed made. This means the play at home was no longer a force out and the runner should have been tagged, meaning he is now safe at home and has scored a run. The fact that had the first base ump made the correct call in real time would have left the catcher with more than enough time to make the tag is meaningless according to the rules.

This play is a great example of how our courts and greater cjs work entirely -- what actually happened is less important than how well one is able to argue in the confines of the rules. Logic, even that which all parties agree with (no one alive would dispute the catcher would have easily made the tag had he known he was supposed to) doesn't matter at all. Because the rules, for better or worse, leave no room for simply making a logical judgement call. So even though everyone knows the play would have ended with the runner at home being tagged out had the runner going from first to second been ruled out on the field, this is inadmissible evidence under the current rules.

None of this is to say our current structure of criminal justice rules (or sports rules for that matter) is necessarily good or bad, just to make the empirical observation that what happens in our criminal justice system is not about what actually happened, it's all about what is able to be argued by experts (well, hopefully experts) within these byzantine systems of rules. The only difference is that in sports we can go to the video record and draw our own conclusions of what happened, while in the criminal justice system we typically just have to hope things turned out for the best...