Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The best thing going

As you can tell from the sidebar on this blog, I'm a big fan of podcasts. Selecting a favorite among them would be tough -- after all, how do you compare, for example, a comedy podcast to those that focus on soccer, baseball, science, history or movies? -- but if you forced me to pick, I'd go with Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. Why Hardcore History? Here's an example from waaaaaaay back in 2007:

Prescient. That's one of the things I enjoy most about Hardcore History -- Dan goes well beyond reciting dry facts and figures or established narratives and shows listeners how the events of the past tie into our modern world. He also approaches history with what he terms his "Martian" perspective, a great example of which is the episode Logical Insanity, in which he argues that the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan might have been the most humane way of ending World War II. (Remember that the Allies were already firebombing Japanese cities and the other endgame options included a ground invasion that would've made the fight for Okinawa seem tame and starving Japan into surrender via a blockade.)

Give Hardcore History a listen; I think you'll like what you hear. If you prefer your events more current, Dan also does Common Sense, a podcast that focuses more on politics and modern government. Whether your focus is on back then or the here and now, smart, engaging shows such as these demonstrate what the New Media is capable of providing. Look at what passes for programming on the History Channel, Discovery, TLC or National Geographic (excuse me, "NatGeo") and tell me whether something like Hardcore History would ever see the light of day on basic cable. Dan and others like him who produce avant, independent content online need and deserve the support of those of us who expect more from our entertainment than just contrived "reality" television.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Thin-skinned, ham-fisted and tone-deaf is no way to go through life

I hesitate to be too judgmental, seeing as I'm not a Public Relations Professional, but it seems calling a team's most ardent supporters big meanieheads and claiming their behavior in unspecified incidents is hurting the club would rank fairly low in the job description for a Direction of Communications. That's exactly what the Chicago Fire's Dan Lobring did this week, though, penning an "editorial" for the club's official website that decried those who criticized him, owner Andrew Hauptman and the front office even though those people are trying REALLY REALLY HARD, YOU GUYS! While it would be easy to dismiss Lobring's post as 1,400 words of sunshine pumping from a man whose job it is to be as positive as humanly possible about a mediocre Major League Soccer team, let's delve a bit into the substance of his complaints.

Lobring spends the first few paragraphs bemoaning the online reaction to his arrival six months ago before reaching the crux of his complaint. He seems genuinely upset by the "personal attacks, threats, accusations, etc." directed at the owner during Chicago's 2-0 home loss to last-place DC United in the US Open Cup semifinals. After helpfully providing a link to the club's charter and quoting the sections on supporters' behavior, he lists examples of the club's work in the community and expresses surprise why anyone would criticize an organization that's working SO HARD to live up to the owner's high standards. He closes by reiterating how proud he is to work for such an "incredible club" and asserting that the silent majority of fans -- the Real Fans, those who want both the club and Lobring to succeed -- will have his back.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Prejudice saves time

A quick tour through the news, with one story doing much to confirm stereotypes and another perhaps undermining some preconceived notions.

First, the former. Three Oklahoma teenagers have been accused of shooting and killing a college baseball player from Australia. Why? "We were bored and didn't have anything to do, so we decided to kill somebody."
Christopher Lane, who was visiting the town of Duncan, where his girlfriend and her family live, had passed a home where the boys were staying and that apparently led to him being killed, police chief Danny Ford said on Monday. A 17-year-old in the group has given a detailed confession to police, but investigators haven't found the weapon used in last week's shooting, Ford said. That teen and the others – aged 15 and 16 – remain in custody; Ford said the district attorney is expected to file first-degree murder charges on Tuesday. It wasn't known if the three would be charged as adults or juveniles. They are to appear in court Tuesday afternoon.
"They saw Christopher go by, and one of them said: 'There's our target,'" Ford said. "The boy who has talked to us said, 'We were bored and didn't have anything to do, so we decided to kill somebody.'"
He said they followed the 22-year-old Lane, a student from Melbourne who was attending college on a baseball scholarship, in a car and shot him in the back before driving off. Ford told the television station KOCO in Oklahoma City that one of the teens said they shot Lane for "the fun of it."
Let's see -- dumb teenagers? Check. Oklahoma? Check. US gun culture? Checkity-check-check.

The media reaction in Australia has been as nuanced and understated as you would expect. Tim Fischer, a former deputy prime minister from the John Howard regime, is doing his part by encouraging Australians to stop visiting the United States in order to force Congress to enact further gun control legislation.
"Tourists thinking of going to the USA should think twice,'' Mr Fischer said. "This is the bitter harvest and legacy of the policies of the NRA that even blocked background checks for people buying guns at gunshows.
"People should take this into account before going to the United States. I am deeply angry about this because of the callous attitude of the three teenagers (but) it's a sign of the proliferation of guns on the ground in the USA. There is a gun for almost every American.''
Fischer has something of a history when it comes to criticizing US gun culture. To be fair to him, though, it's hard to fault Australia's record. When a conservative government enacts sweeping gun control legislation and the country goes from 13 mass shootings in the 18 years prior to 1996 to zero mass shootings since 1996, there just might be something to that approach.

And now for something only slightly less depressing. Canadians are supposed to be all nice and understanding, right? Nothing like their noisy neighbors to the south. As it turns out, though, the Great White North has its own infestation of fuckwits. For example, there's this enlightened individual:
Ontario police are aware of a disgusting letter that apparently sent to a woman caring for an autistic child by a woman neighbour who wanted the "wild animal kid" out of her neighbourhood, even if it meant killing the child.
The hateful letter was reportedly sent last week to a resident of Newcastle, Ont., just west of Toronto, who hosts her 13-year-old grandson, Max, during summer days.
The full letter is below the jump.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

From the 'Blind Squirrel' files

Even an archbishop of Canterbury is right twice a day.
Christians in Britain and the US who claim that they are persecuted should "grow up" and not exaggerate what amounts to feeling "mildly uncomfortable", according to Rowan Williams, who last year stepped down as archbishop of Canterbury after an often turbulent decade.
"When you've had any contact with real persecuted minorities you learn to use the word very chastely," he said. "Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. 'For goodness sake, grow up,' I want to say."
True persecution was "systematic brutality and often murderous hostility that means that every morning you wonder if you and your children are going to live through the day". He cited the experience of a woman he met in India "who had seen her husband butchered by a mob".
Not to worry, though -- the former archbishop reverts to form in the rest of the article.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Everybody in the pool

These are heady days for US men's national team fans. The United States is riding high in El Hex with four games to go and a World Cup berth tantalizingly close, MLS appears to be moving from strength to strength, Anglophiles have a new hero to cheer on/fret over (delete as necessary) in the Premiership, and Mexico can't keep from tripping over its own shoelaces. After facing serious questions about his performance earlier this year, Jurgen Klinsmann is basking in his own personal Era of Good Feelings, not to mention an 11-game winning streak and the reflection of his first trophy as a manager.

One of the most-repeated hosannas in the wake of the United States retaking the Gold Cup is that the national team player pool is the deepest it's ever been. That's an interesting turn of events if true, especially considering there's a vocal section of American soccer fans that considers MLS and US Soccer's player development broken and in dire need of repair. There is obviously still work to be done in World Cup qualifying -- the United States is 0-2-5 all-time at Costa Rica, with the two draws coming in 1985 and 1992, and Mexico will be desperate to end a slide that has seen it win just one of its six qualifiers -- but fans have the luxury of turning an eye toward next year's big show in Brazil. Who stands the best chance of getting on that plane? What follows is an attempt at drawing up a four-deep depth chart at each position, plus a handful of contenders, also-rans and ones for the future.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

So disappointed

It wasn't so long ago that I was excited about being part of the skeptical movement. After years of wandering and not knowing what to think about how to think, it was refreshing to find a group of people whose basic message was "examine the evidence and think for yourself." No dogma, no holy book, no gods or masters -- just you, the evidence and all the critical thinking skills you bring to the table.

Then came The Amazing Meeting, the massive annual convention in Las Vegas held by the James Randi Educational Foundation. After years of tangentially experiencing the skeptical movement through blogs and podcasts, I had the chance to experience the scene first-hand. Even with the jet lag of flying from Jakarta to Las Vegas (via Incheon), I had a great time as the list of speakers was replete with some of my favorite people in science and skepticism -- Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott, Richard Wiseman, Bill Nye, the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe crew, and more. For the first time in quite a few years, I felt at home somewhere other than a newsroom. I met some great people, ate surprisingly well and learned the value of like-minded people gathering in meatspace instead of solely on the Internet.

So it comes as a great disappointment -- though certainly not a surprise -- that skeptics are just as capable of being shitbags as more credulous folk. Revelations emerged during the past week that cast some of the most prominent names in the skeptical movement as rather despicable human beings. The trickle began when linguist and author Karen Stollznow spoke out about suffering years of sexual harassment while working at the Center for Inquiry, an organization that supports science and critical thinking but has found itself in hot water recently. When Stollznow took her harassment complaint to her employer, the CFI's response was less than stellar.