Monday, May 25, 2009

When Good Dragons Go Bad

Just saw this in the news, and thought I'd pass it along to my millions of dragon-loving followers:
Komodo dragons have shark-like teeth and poisonous venom that can kill a person within hours of a bite. Yet villagers who have lived for generations alongside the world's largest lizard were not afraid — until the dragons started to attack.
It's unclear to me just how much more dangerous these guys really are. But it's interesting to see the different theories being put forth and the responses to them.

Perhaps it's just a slow news day. But if you happen to be in the neighborhood, better watch out!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

My Broken State

I have had the privilege of living in California most of my life. There are many wonderful things about the place, and I have chosen it over some other terrific options. One of the not-so great aspects of living here, however, is that the state government is horribly broken.

This article from The Economist gets a lot of what's not working, and talks a bit about some efforts to fix or replace it. Here's a pretty good summary:

The broken budget mechanism and the twin failures in California’s representative and direct democracy are enough to guarantee dysfunction. The sheer complexity of the state exacerbates it. Peter Schrag, the author of “California: America’s High-Stakes Experiment”, has counted about 7,000 overlapping jurisdictions, from counties and cities to school and water districts, fire and park commissions, utility and mosquito-abatement boards, many with their own elected officials. The surprise is that anything works at all.

As a result, there is now a consensus among the political elite that California’s governance is “fundamentally broken” and that the state is “ungovernable, unless we make tough choices”, as Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles and a likely candidate for governor next year, puts it.
I hope we'll be able to pull it together. The city I live in (Oakland) is pretty dysfunctional at this point, too. Interesting times....

Monday, May 11, 2009

Popular Depictions of Torture

Torture is a standard trope in many forms of popular entertainment. Frankly, it's so common that I don't think some writers even realize what they're including in their material. For example, the very fun (and mostly kid-appropriate) movie The Incredibles has some very intense scenes of torture. I realize that's a staple for superhero movies, but it didn't seem necessary in that otherwise terrific film. And it made me regret that my daughter saw the film, as I felt she was too young to understand that part (but old enough to be troubled by it).

Now, in my youth I saw plenty of "torture," too, but mostly in silly contexts such as cartoons or the Batman TV series, where the "danger" was usually so comical as to be laughable. I mean, Batman being fed to a giant "man-eating clam" is just too silly for even a child to take seriously. We get the message that the bad guy is trying to "torture" Batman, either to extract some information or to make his (highly dubious) demise slow and painful. And I suppose one could argue that such easy depictions of something truly awful might actually lessen one's horror at the real thing (though in my case, that obviously wasn't the outcome).

This is all brought to mind by my seeing the new Star Trek movie over the weekend. I really enjoyed it, both because it was a fun movie from end to end and because I can't even remember the last time I saw any movie on its opening weekend, even standing in line with friends to get good seats. What fun!

As many Star Trek episodes do, this one has some torture in it (though less graphic than much of what's out there these days). I can barely remember an episode of the original series where Captain Kirk or one of his crew didn't get abused in some way by someone. (And is it just coincidence that that series overlapped with Batman in the mid-1960s?) But I had forgotten the really excellent (and excruciating) episode in Star Trek: The Next Generation where Captain Picard is tortured at length by the Cardassians.

There's a great discussion of it at length in this article from Slate by Juliet Lapidos (hat tip to Josh Marshall at TPM). Read the whole thing; it's very good. Here's a highlight:
The extended torture sessions take a toll not just on Picard but on his interrogator as well. The more time the Cardassian spends with Picard, the more he becomes fixated on breaking his prisoner. And so the supposed goal of torture—information—is sidelined, while the means by which the goal will theoretically be achieved—mental submission—becomes an end in itself. As Picard puts it, "Torture has never been a reliable means of extracting information. It is ultimately self-defeating as a means of control. One wonders it is still practiced."
One gets the impression watching Dick Cheney recently that big chunks of the U.S. government crossed that line at some point (like waterboarding the same guy scores of times). Eventually the already dubious goal of forcefully extracting information gets lost in the mission of breaking the victim. Instead of the ends justifying the means (though they still insist that's what's behind it), the means themselves are merely trying to justify their own use. (If you can't break the subject, what's the point of trying to? Thus, you must keep trying.) Ultimately, torture demeans both the torturer and the victim, and for no good outcome.

The good news is that this stuff is only a minor subplot in the whole Star Trek movie. I highly recommend it to those who like the old Trek: the new angles on the familiar characters are a lot of fun. I'll avoid further comment so as not to spoil it for anyone. But go read the Slate article.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Sea Creature Update

No actual further news on the psychedelic frog fish or the barreleye fish, but I just stumbled across both of them on the Rocketboom blog in a post about the 15 most bizarre sea creatures. Definitely other cool stuff there.

And speaking of Rocketboom, I haven't been paying attention, and was disappointed to see that Joanne Colan left as presenter last month. She was great fun to watch. I'm sure her replacement will also be good.

The Good Old Days

I have long complained that baseball players, and particularly pitchers, seem to be pampered to a degree today that I think diminishes the game and the achievements of the players. In particular, starting pitchers are coddled, pitch less often and for shorter stints than they did a generation ago.

The 20-game winner is nearly extinct. Pitchers rarely finish games, settling for so-called "quality starts" of 6 innings or so. They shoot for 200 innings in a season, where 300 used to be relatively common. I'm not suggesting that they don't work hard or anything (though some, such as Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus, contend that pitchers pitch too infrequently in games, and too often between times).

It is comforting, of course, to know that this is not a new issue. For example, this quote from a retired pitcher:
The game of baseball hasn't changed much in the past fifty years, but the players have a different philosophy toward the game. They want to make a lot of money and retire. ... We played for the love of the game; there were few holdouts. We wanted to pitch every day; to win more games than the other guy--not for the money, but for the glory of winning.
It's great stuff, and it comes from Hall of Famer Kid Nichols in Baseball Digest, January 1948 (hat tip to Paul Campos at LGM). Here are some more gems:
...modern-day clubs carry too many pitchers, which prevents the hurlers from working enough to bring out the best that is in them. The old-time clubs carried three pitchers; today, they have 10. ...

Sometimes we pitched every other day. Twice I pitched three days in succession and went the distance in each game. ...

We worked hard, but I wouldn't say we were overworked. During my twelve years with Boston, I took part in 517 games, averaging twenty-seven and three-tenths wins per season. ... If I was overworked, it didn't affect my arm. I spent seventeen years in organized ball, far above the average of present-day hurlers.
It's short, but a good read. Anyway, I guess the more things change, the farther we get from the "good old days," whatever we believe them to have been. And yet, baseball is still pretty wonderful!

I'll just be wandering off in my walker now.