Thursday, February 21, 2008

Triangle Man vs. Universe Man: Who Wins?

I've been wondering about this for years now, and I don't feel like I'll ever have closure on the subject. Triangle Man and Universe Man are the two surviving, undefeated parties at the end of The Song. We're left hanging. There is an obvious classic matchup in the offing, but we're never treated to the particulars. It's sort like the AFL and NFL before the leagues instituted a Super Bowl to settle the matter.

I should qualify this talk about a "classic" matchup, as well as my AFL/NFL comparison, by noting that by no means is Universe Man a champion. He is not battle-tested. He is undefeated, but only by virtue of never having fought. Could I get behind a fighter with an 0-0 record in a contest of this magnitude? Would I put money down on him? Let's do a tale of the tape:

Location: Universe Man is the size of the entire universe, man. Simple logic commands that whatever venue the promoters select for the fight will be familiar and comfortable to him. He has per se home field advantage. That is, unless the fight breaks out in Triangle Man's house, in which case I declare it a neutral field.

Size/Agility: I cover these characteristics in tandem, for reasons you'll understand shortly. This is obviously a David and Goliath-style matchup. We don't know Triangle Man's dimensions. In fact, we don't know anything at all about him, except that he's chippy. He's chippy, and he channels hatred well. I think, though, that we can safely assume that Universe Man, at the size of the entire universe (man), will tower over Triangle Man. As the smaller party, Triangle Man is certainly the more agile combatant. For my purposes, I define "agility" as "litheness, ability to move, ability to escape and elude an attack." Universe Man takes up all the space in the universe. In theory, this renders him completely immobile, and that immobility hurts his case. On the other hand, for these same reasons Universe Man is inescapable. He completely envelops Triangle Man, thereby neutralizing Triangle Man's greater agility. (I should add that by this analysis, I find it pretty likely that this will be a lousy fight, from a spectator standpoint. By definition, Universe Man and Triangle Man must be in a clench at all times, and no amount of refereeing can separate them and make the combat worth watching.)

Shape: Cosmologists have ventured a number of theories as to Universe Man's shape. I won't presume to declare one of these models to be better or truer than another. I will say, however, that Triangle Man is pointy. Pointy is sharp, and sharp can hurt. In fact, pointy-sharp can arguably tear through the space-time fabric, if its wielder is sufficiently motivated and skilled. Advantage: Triangle Man.

Essential Qualities: As I have noted, we know very little of Triangle Man, except that he has an unblemished record, and he appears to have been the party who picked the fight in both instances. Triangle Man's irrational hatred of others fuels his aggression. He's a dynamo, no doubt about it. But remember that Universe Man has a watch with three hands, and when they meet it's a happy land, and for this reason, he is a powerful man, Universe Man. That three-handed watch may be the trump card here. If the alignment of hands conjures up happiness throughout the land, one would expect its spell to be binding on Triangle Man as well. Its effect should be to neutralize Triangle Man's aggression, thereby rendering him a substantially less formidable opponent. So long as Universe Man can hold out until minute hand, millennium hand, and eon hand meet, he has a shot here.

Deeper Analysis: Clearly Triangle Man is the symbolic embodiment of fascism, and clearly The Song means to leave us to consider the challenge of fascism to certain "universal" truths. We know the destructive effects that pointed, militant, simple-minded hatred can have on particles and persons. But what threat does it pose to the universe writ large? Are we talking about the collision between matter (in the form of Universe Man) and anti-matter (in the form of Triangle Man)? What follows? One would think an absolute canceling-out is what would follow. We're left with nothing. Emptiness, a void. Silence, you might say. When one considers that this is the likely outcome, we finally understand why The Song never reaches the point of reporting on this fight we're so curious to see. The Song doesn't mean to tantalize is. It does not mean to deprive us of this gold medal round. That's not the case. The Song just ends: it ends like everything must if Triangle Man takes up arms against Universe Man. The silence does not mean that the fight never happened. It means that the fight did happen. Do you see?

So who won? Well, it depends on how you look at it. If Triangle Man and Universe Man definitionally obliterate one another, then arguably no one wins. However, it's important to note that Triangle Man is not self-reflective. Triangle Man is entirely outward focused. That is, he fights not to vindicate some important interest of his own — he fights because he hates the opponent. If Triangle Man joins a fight, and the outcome of that fight is that both parties are destroyed, then Triangle Man has achieved his principal objective and lost nothing. He has destroyed Universe Man, the object of his hatred. That he is also destroyed is immaterial. He accomplished what he came to do. Triangle Man wins.

Thus, Triangle Man, Triangle Man, Triangle Man hates Universe Man. They have a fight, Triangle wins. Triangle Man.

This is where I stand right now, today, but if past history is any guide, I will surely revisit this question again some weeks down the line, and I can't promise I won't come round to the view at that point that Universe Man is the obvious winner. Right now? today? It's Triangle Man.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

In the Course of Which 2 of 3 Feigned Outrage Authors Prove Themselves To Be Nimrods

The following substantially transcribes a phone conversation late Monday night, the subject being an online Scrabble game:

Ethan Allen Hawley: What's wrong with "bailif?"

Phutatorius: I have your other "f" on my rack.

EAH: Two f's?

P: Two f's.

EAH: That's ridiculous. That can't be right.

P: Of course it's right. Name one word in English that ends in "-if."

EAH: "If."

P: Yeah, OK. Fine. But "bailiff" has two f's.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Kosovo Declares Independence . . .

. . . Serbs take their toys and go home.

(Note FO's first link to a Brisbane Times article.)

So I have occasion now to wonder: how long a waiting period has to lapse before the historically brutal and oppressive state gets to complain about the conduct of the ethnic minority it brutally oppressed? I suppose it's a subjective calculation. From where I'm sitting, though, ten years is way too short.

I say we send Jack Bauer on a secret mission into the vacant Serbian embassy to short-sheet all the beds. I'm not a master of diplomatic protocols by any means, but it seems a reasonable way to send a message. If you'd prefer something more straightforward, I propose a letter on Department of State stationery that reads, Hey, Serbia: before you come back, why don't you contribute something to world culture other than mass rape and attempted genocide? You pricks.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Should We Use the Olympics?

There's been an undercurrent in the news lately about the awkwardness with China, which will host the Olympic Games in Beijing this year, even as it tramples all over international norms in an effort to bring resources home to fuel its growing economy. Now there isn't a "developed" nation on this Earth that hasn't behaved unscrupulously on its climb into the world's economic elite. Colonial abuses, slash-and-burn agriculture, deforestation, displacement of native peoples, child labor, sweetheart deals with foreign leaders to exploit local resources — it's all there in the historical record. No one is innocent, to be sure — not even the U.S.

Right now, though, the world leader in amoral economic policy is the Chinese government. If your country has resources the Chinese economy can use, the Party will do business. It doesn't matter that you're promoting the wholesale slaughter, rape, and displacement of ethnic minorities, or that your military government just defied the international community and gave shoot-to-kill orders on peaceful protesters. Got oil, Sudan? Got pipeline prospects, Myanmar? Let's talk.

Which brings us to the Olympics, which supply an occasion for people to call attention to China's complicity in human rights disasters around the globe. Or not.

It occurs to me that, more than any other institution, the Olympics are a universally-shared human value. Sure — al Qaeda won't be sending a delegation of athletes anytime soon, notwithstanding its members' well-documented tire-course expertise. (They only do obstacle-course competitions on Battle of the Network Stars.) But nihilistic transnational terror groups excepted, everybody else loves the Olympics. Everybody believes in the Olympics, whatever else they may believe.

And so I wonder: given the Olympics' status as a shared, transcendent value, should we be using it to promote our sublunary politics, however benign and upright our intentions? I'm of two minds here. I genuinely believe that there are certain baseline human values that should enjoy the same worldwide appeal and enthusiasm that the Olympics do. Those values — life, liberty, autonomy, equal treatment, the rule of law, freedom of expression, etc. — are certainly more important to me than a shot-put contest. If we can exploit an institution like the Olympics to advance these values, then we certainly should do it. Right?

On the other hand, as I just noted, it's fair to say that the Olympics are the only value we all hold in common in this so-often vicious world. That counts for something. It counts for a lot, actually. President Carter's boycott of Moscow 1980 to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan didn't accomplish much. The Eastern Bloc's retaliatory decision to eschew the L.A. games in 1984 was predictable and — dare I say it? — lame. We look back on the boycotts as pathetic gestures, instances of down-and-dirty politics sullying an institution that we hold very dear to our hearts, and that (we hope) will continue to survive and thrive after petty conflicts like the Cold War are long gone.

We'll never be able to distill the politics out of our Olympics. In fact, I would argue that we shouldn't try. Politics give the Olympics a lot of their dramatic kick, after all: we all grew up pulling for our aw-shucks regular American kids to go higher, faster, farther than the affectless Frankenroiders from East Germany. The competition offered us all a kind of safety valve: we were able to see the two camps compete — capitalism vs. communism, West vs. East played out on ice, in a pool, in the gym, rather than with ICBMs. And what better storyline is there than Jesse Owens, the epitome of grace in competition, conquering his Aryan rivals in Berlin in 1936? Without politics, Jesse Owens is Carl Lewis — a great athlete, but not a hero. (Did I say that Jesse was a Buckeye?)

The Olympics are The It-Institution. Off the record, six drinks deep into a Saturday night, the United Nations tells the bartender it wishes it could be the Olympics. No other idea has ever been so broadly embraced by the world community as M. de Coubertain's. Consider China as a classic example: this government goes around the world arming genocidaires and could give a crap who complains. But give it a shot at hosting the Olympic Games, and suddenly the Chinese are desperate to impress the international community. That's cachet, people, and you'd really like to think that cachet could be leveraged to bring the world something bigger than impenetrable performance art (though I do love you, Bj√∂rk, more than you'll ever know) followed by two weeks of televised sports. On the other hand, I'm not sure who to trust to get that done, and I worry that the effort will spoil the Olympics — and we'll end up a more fragmented world community than we are even now.

Thoughts? Help?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Legislatures

Making the impossible possible, and the irrational rational, since at least 1897.

Think of all the dorky "how many decimal points can you recite?" contests that this law could have averted. Oh, you mathematicians! [shaking fist]

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Hypocrisy

There is a very interesting piece in the Boston Globe about political leaders and hypocrisy.  Perhaps there's nothing terribly earth-shattering, but it puts all the pieces together in a nice way.  I'm no fan of hypocrisy, but what if the alternative is really too much consistency (and therefore an inability to learn and change course as necessary) or too much simplicity?

For Romney, the illegal immigrants working for the landscaping company he hired seems completely irrelevant and reminiscent of AGs who were disqualified because they didn't pay social security tax on their housekeeper's pay.  And we all know what happens if you disqualify AGs on these grounds - you end up having to look at pictures of Janet Reno for years.

For Obama voting to provide funds for the Iraq war, this doesn't seem to be hypocrisy at all.  Being against the war shouldn't compel someone to cut off funding.  He was right on Iraq in the beginning, but he's not a moron.  Whether he wanted it this way or not, we are at war and we need to wage it effectively.

The hypocrisy accusations against Clinton seem more valid.  Initially for a bad war, but then against it when it's unpopular and we really need to keep fighting.  It seems like hypocrisy here, but it could just be consistently bad judgment, which would be even more troubling.

I don't know too much about McCain's positions on Bush's tax cuts.  Maybe he is a weasel and a hypocrite like the rest, but it seems like in the primaries you're going to get some inconsistency from everyone as they pander to the extremes of their respective parties.

Anyway, it's an interesting read.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Specter and Spygate: Feigned Outrage, To Be Sure

So two days before the New England Patriots play in the Super Bowl, Senator Arlen Specter (R, Pennsylvania) is demanding that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell explain why the League destroyed evidence relating to the "Spygate" scandal of earlier this year. To which I — no Boston fan, I emphasize — have to say, You've got to be kidding me. And I've got company in London's Globe and Mail.

You may remember in Week One of the NFL season, New York Jets head coach Eric Mangini complained that the Patriots had cameras trained on the Jets' sideline to record hand signals the Jets' coaching staff was making to players on the field. Goodell found that the Patriots had violated league rules, and he ruled the violation to be a flagrant one, because it came on the heels of an explicit directive the League had issued in a memorandum earlier in the week. Much teeth-gnashing and garment-rending followed. Pats head coach Bill Belichick tried to dismiss his team's violation as a simple misinterpretation of the rule. Players on other teams attributed playoff losses to the Patriots' cheating. There was much discussion of whether the use of cameras at issue here really confers a meaningful advantage, and of course there were a steady stream of excuses served up by callers to Boston sports radio on the order of "Come on — everybody does it." (As if Chuck from Quincy would be in a position to know . . .)

The Pats were docked a first-round draft pick and the League personally fined Belichick $500,000 — a non-negligible amount of money. A Jets fan filed a class action, claiming he and similarly situated football fans who bought tickets to Jets/Pats games were deprived of fairly-contested play and should get their money back. Oh, the outrage.

For those of us who could give a crap about pro football, the New York Jets, and the New England Patriots, the "Spygate" story was flatly uninteresting, much ado about nothing, a scandal hardly deserving of the "-gate" suffix that was so quickly attached to it.

But for those of us who find our sensibilities offended daily by the sad, silly personages who purportedly represent our interests in Congress — well, now we do have to dignify this subject matter, because over the past few years our earnest legislators in Washington have learned that they can score points with constituents by taking on organized sports.

First it was steroids in baseball — this is an ongoing matter of concern for the United States Congress, which holds Major League Baseball's exemption from the antitrust laws in its back pocket, so empowering it to haul the sport's august personages (and its Commissioner) into the Capitol for regular beratings.

Last year the hot topic was sports on television. As Opening Day approached and it became clearer that MLB's sale of exclusive Extra Innings programming rights to DirecTV would result in something close to a nationwide blackout of out-of-market baseball games, John Kerry got involved. Because of the NFL Network's ongoing negotiating beef with Big Cable TV, the Patriots' final regular season game against the Giants would have been available only to a limited audience. Pressure from Connecticut, Vermont, and Rhode Island Congressmen, along with a joint letter from Senators Specter and Patrick Leahy (D, Vermont), prompted Goodell to relent and make the game broadly available on the networks, so the nation could actually watch New England finish off a perfect 16-0 season.

Now Specter, citing his concerns for the "integrity" of pro football, is waving the NFL's antitrust exemption in the air, crying Look at me! Look at me! Let's put aside for just a minute whether the National Football League and Major League Baseball are comparable American "institutions." I recognize that people actually like to watch the NFL, and for the sake of argument I'll accept that point. But the gap in magnitude between the steroid scandal and Spygate is dramatic. For starters, steroids are controlled substances under federal law. Second, we gather that the use of steroids in baseball was so pervasive as to severely threaten the health of players, distort the outcomes of games, and destroy the sport's hallowed record book. Third, there is abundant evidence to suggest that team owners and league officials willfully turned a blind eye to the scandal, notwithstanding the abundant violations of federal law and the enduring threat to the integrity of the game.

Spygate is a simple instance of one team cheating, arguably to no substantial advantage. This is not a matter in which the Commissioner's Office was complicit, by commission or omission: Goodell absolutely hammered the perpetrators. The Giants stole signs down the stretch in their historic overtaking of the Dodgers in 1951. Gaylord Perry threw spitballs. Sammy Sosa and Albert Belle corked their bats. Bill Laimbeer played dirty. All that sucks. Now is it Congress's business? Humph and hardly.

I wrote to friends a couple weeks ago about my ambivalence on Congress's involvement with the steroids issue:

I'm of two minds about this. For starters, Congress is pathetic. They're not only venal, self-absorbed, and perspectiveless — they're lazy. They slap together a rewrite of the federal government's surveillance powers at the last minute so they can go on vacation — no worries, they tell us: the law only applies for six months. By then they'll have their act together. Right. And these jackasses yesterday couldn't even be bothered to know anything about the subject matter of their questioning. It's real easy to criticize Bud Selig, but it's even easier to pronounce his frickin' last name correctly. So I'm with you on one score, Mark: when you consider how seriously Congress takes its time off and how not-seriously it takes it work hours . . . well, yes, it demonstrates a bit of a priority gap for them to preoccupy themselves with hearings like this. To be fair, though, it's just one committee. I believe they do it because feigning outrage and abusing people while they're under oath is what they're good at. It gets them in front of cameras and allows them to perform. Of course, it also reveals many of them to be jackasses when they arrive utterly unprepared and then participate anyway — any one of us would be fired from our jobs if we didn't bother to prepare ourselves for work.

* * *

But I agree with Bob, too: this is a situation that Congress is peculiarly situated to help solve. MLB had absolutely no interest in policing itself until players were called to testify back in 2004. Once McGwire and Sosa humiliated themselves and the sport before Congress, the union and the league and commissioner's offices finally got on the same page and implemented an aggressive testing policy. Congress does its worst when it legislates, to be sure, but it does its best when it threatens to legislate — any institution with half a brain will walk through fire to avoid letting these bumbling idiots get their hands on it. Congress has a hook here: the antitrust exemption it's given baseball in light of its status as the national pastime. It can regulate if it wants to. Nobody wants that to happen. So calling the bad actors and nonactors to the carpet here isn't the worst idea in the world.

I know you don't think much of the sport, but baseball is an important part of our national heritage, and a lot of people in this country care about it. If [Congress] can make some noise at the last minute and help prompt the NFL to show the Patriots-Giants game to a national audience — because it expects to be historic — then certainly this is within the purview of Congress, if not its very limited range of competence.


To that I don't have much to add, except that we shouldn't be surprised that our Congressmen continue to stick their noses deeper and deeper into organized sports. It's really the perfect subject matter for them: (1) sports inflames the passions of Americans, so with sports you're assured of appealing to voters' most deeply-held beliefs (as opposed to appeals about the genocide in Darfur, which are just boring); (2) big, contemptible monied interests are involved, so you can call people in for hearings and humiliate them to general applause; and (3) the stakes are hardly life-and-death, as in the larger scheme of things, sports are meaningless — so there is no great importance in solving the problem or appearing to manage it competently.

So go get Roger Goodell, Senator Specter. Because, as you say, Goodell's exercise of discretion as Commissioner of the NFL to destroy the Spygate tapes really is "analogous [to] the CIA destruction of tapes" of its pressure-based interrogations.