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November 2003

Statistics That Go Bump in the Night


Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and one of the few things that Michael Moore got right in his often entertaining but deeply muddle-brained Bowling for Columbine was the degree to which large-scale media outlets (television news in particular) build up unfounded fears and sow alarm among their viewers by their highlighting of "dramatic" stories of crime, disease and danger out of all proportion to the true degree of risk. Now the Guardian reports that the BBC is adopting policies directed to a more accurate reporting of risk. Among other things, the Beeb is concerned that disproportionate reporting of some stories results in (say it isn't so) misguided spending priorities:

Train crashes provide an example in which politicians, urged on by the media, are now spending £10m on safety measures to save each life, when a death on the road can be prevented for 100th of the cost.

Meanwhile, road danger (coupled with media hype over stranger danger) keeps children indoors, where they become fat and unfit - a trend likely to cost the country billions in future obesity bills. Child health experts want to see safer streets, but the multiple individual tragedies of kids killed or hurt by cars cannot match the news significance of a major event such as a train crash.

* * *

The Sars virus is a classic case. It posed relatively little danger, but it dominated headlines for weeks - partly because it became a symbol of the globalisation of health risk through air travel. The economy of Toronto lies in tatters.

The BSE-vCJD ["mad cow" disease] scare became a touchstone of Conservative government incompetence as journalists conveniently forgot that top independent scientists had advised ministers that the likelihood of BSE transferring to human form was less than the chance of being hit by lightning. Even now the vCJD boom predicted by doomsters has not happened, and over the next years the cost of preventing a death from vCJD will run into billions for each life saved. . . .
It is good to see the BBC trying to get a handle on this problem. Perhaps they will offer their American brethren of the press a few pointers, so that they might spare themselves further embarrassment.

[Link via The Edge of England's Sword.]


Miles and the Impressionists: So What?


So this Wall Street Journal critic walks into a lunchroom . . . .

Terry Teachout offers some musings inspired by hearing Miles Davis' Kind of Blue being played as background music, noting how different the view of that recording is now than when it was new:

It's easy to forget that Kind of Blue was one of the most radically innovative jazz recordings of its time. For a generation of open-eared players, it was the passport to a new world of improvisation in which the meticulously interlocked tonal harmonies of the swing era were jettisoned in favor of spacious modal prairies around which the soloist wandered seemingly at will. So how is it that so Indisputably Important a recording has wormed its way into the pop-culture landscape of America? Kind of Blue, after all, is one of the very few jazz albums owned by people who know nothing else about jazz. (As I write these words, it ranks 132 in sales among pop-music CDs on amazon.com.) It's the record Clint Eastwood (who knows a lot about jazz) puts on when he comes home from a hard day of assassin-hunting in In the Line of Fire. A whole book has been written about its history and cultural significance. Now it's Muzak -- yet it remains as vital and listenable as ever. By what strange alchemy was this transformation effected?
The particulars in the case of Miles Davis I leave to aficionados of jazz, but the pattern here -- what was once radical is now just a comfortable part of the passing scene -- is one seen in other arts as well. What could be more commonplace in the last 50 years than exhibitions and reproductions of the French Impressionist painters, Monet, Renoir and the rest? They are the comfort food of serious art, but once they were as scandalous as could be, the very name of the movement meant to be pronounced with a superior sneer:
An outraged critic, Louis Leroy, coined the label 'Impressionist.' He looked at Monet's Impression Sunrise, the artist's sensory response to a harbor at dawn, painted with sketchy brushstrokes. 'Impression!' the journalist snorted. 'Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished!' Within a year, the name Impressionism was an accepted term in the art world.

If the name was accepted, the art itself was not. 'Try to make Monsieur Pissarro understand that trees are not violet; that the sky is not the color of fresh butter...and that no sensible human being could countenance such aberrations...try to explain to Monsieur Renoir that a woman's torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with those purplish-green stains,' wrote art critic Albert Wolff after the second Impressionist exhibition. Although some people appreciated the new paintings, many did not. The critics and the public agreed the Impressionists couldn't draw and their colors were considered vulgar. Their compositions were strange. Their short, slapdash brushstrokes made their paintings practically illegible. Why didn't these artists take the time to finish their canvases, viewers wondered?

Indeed, Impressionism broke every rule of the French Academy of Fine Arts, the conservative school that had dominated art training and taste since 1648. Impressionist scenes of modern urban and country life were a far cry from the Academic efforts to teach moral lessons through historic, mythological, and Biblical themes. This tradition, drawn from ancient Greek and Roman art, featured idealized images. Symmetrical compositions, hard outlines, and meticulously smooth paint surfaces characterized academic paintings.
The process at work here could be analyzed at length, but I'll offer up one opinion. What Miles and Monet have in common is that, however radically new their methods and techniques, their goal remained the same as that of most successful art: not merely to capture a thought, musical idea, impression or amorphous concept but to successfully convey it along to the listener/viewer. It's a subtle variant, I suppose, on the idea of Selling It that I identified in Mel Brooks' The Producers: it matters not how clever your insight unless some audience is willing to receive it from you, and the essence of the art -- high or low, impressionism or schtick -- is in the communication from artist to audience. Miles' new music, like the Impressionists' new painting or the high Moderns' new poetry, may have been initially off-putting on its surface, but it was driven by an underlying desire to connect. Those artists' ultimate success in making the connection helps to explain why now there's no escaping the Impressionists or that astounding quartet of jazzmen.


What Links May Come (Wild Woman Edition)


In my obsessive review of my referrer logs, I find that this Fool has been linked on Mikarrhea, the largely poetry-oriented site of Michaela Cooper. [Note: Parental Discretion is advised. Strong opinions are strongly expressed there, and matters sexual are rarely far away.] At the end of a lengthy post that starts out to be about Shelley's "Ozymandias" but turns out to be moreso about tracking down a quote from A.E. Houseman, Mika finds herself more than somewhat taken aback by my day job:

Who'd a thunk someone working in insurance law would have a single poetic bone in his body? Wild.
Thank you. We always like the element of surprise.


Home is Where the Press Is


My, my my. Homeschoolers continue to be aggravated with CBS News' "Home School Nightmares" series of last week (on which my comments are here and yet again here). The Madame DeFarge of live from the guillotine has sent along an e-mail with a link to this site -- The Dark Side of Public School -- compiling just about everything you can imagine going wrong in the context of public schooling. Of course, as the late Warren Zevon observed, "Life'll Kill Ya."

Meanwhile, via Hit & Run, we find a link to a New York Times story that, with this paragraph near the top, might as well be called "The Dark Side of Home Cooking":

Restaurants of dubious legality, where food is cooked in apartments and backyards, abound across the United States. These underground restaurants range from upscale to gritty, and are born from youthful idealism, ethnic tradition or economic necessity. They lack certification from any government agency and are, strictly speaking, against the law. You dine in them at your own risk. If you can find them.
Bon appetit!


First They Came for the Misguided Sports Writers . . . .


Although I followed it as it played out last week, I had nothing to add to the kerfuffle over journalist Gregg Easterbrook's remarks on his web journal at The New Republic Online that were broadly criticized as potentially or actually anti-Semitic. If you missed it, Easterbrook really really disliked Quentin Tarantino's new film Kill Bill, Volume One, and he used that film as an opportunity to go off on the broader subject of the penchant of American studios to generate innumerable films of which violence, often extreme violence, is the seeming raison d'être and which, in Easterbrook's phrase, present "killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice." In the course of that piece, however, he launched a rhetorical fusillade at film executives "who worship money above all else," singling out for particular criticism Disney's Michael Eisner and Miramax's Harvey Weinstein and asking whether "right for Jewish executives to worship money above all else, by promoting for profit the adulation of violence?"

When it was widely pointed out that to propose the equation "Jewish" = "worships only money" even backhandedly is to endorse one of the classic anti-Semitic tropes, Easterbrook promptly -- well, within three days -- posted a lengthy apology. That response may not have satisfied all the critics, but matters seemed to be calming down when I turned my back on the online world for a few days.

Imagine, then, my surprise on returning today to find that Easterbrook had been fired over the weekend -- not by The New Republic, on whose pages he had made the offending comments, but by ESPN.com where he posted his often-insightful and more frequently amusing football column, Tuesday Morning Quarterback. Why do I provide no link to an example of Easterbrook's football writing, which I have mentioned here before? Because ESPN not only fired him, it purged all evidence from its site that Easterbrook or his column had ever existed. Not even a smoking crater marks the spot. By the time I started following the story, nearly anyone with any interest in it had posted their response, many of which were compiled by Insta-prof Glenn Reynolds here.

Now, we are dealing here with the acts of private citizens (Easterbrook and his corporate employer(s)) and not with any sort of government action, so the First Amendment as such does not apply. Still, Easterbrook's original remark was being "cured" by the remedy traditionally endorsed under the First Amendment: the answer to "bad" speech is more and better speech in response, not forcible excision of the offensive speech or its speaker. [The troubling aspects of ESPN's action are only compounded if it was taken not so much in response to the charge of anti-Semitism as it was to Easterbrook's having singled out for criticism the CEO of Disney, corporate parent to ESPN.]

Colby Cosh makes the critical point while summing up the semi-innocent line of thinking that led Easterbrook into this morass in the first place:

But, in general, I'm not sure it's healthy to have a principle that we are, even in uniquely sensitive cases, going to insist upon the least generous interpretation of someone's public comments. Who amongst us will survive that sort of scrutiny for long? I suspect, having followed his work, that Easterbrook was really thinking, when he wrote what he wrote, of the Jews' special place in our history and our civilization; of the Jewish tradition of moral law and the pursuit of justice, and of the infinite debt owed to Jewry and Jewish thinkers by the West. He felt that Michael Eisner and Harvey Weinstein were letting down the ethnic side by bankrolling what he regards as violent crapola. This placed him in the position of appearing to propose a different standard of behaviour for Jews--an unexpected consequence, I think, of pursuing benign but mistaken opinions to a logical conclusion.
What seems to be at work in this case is an unhealthy combination of corporate power with the sort of "whatever might offend someone must be banned" hypersensitivity that drives draconian phenomena such as campus speech codes. Whatever its source, the firing of Gregg Easterbrook under these circumstances is hard to condone.

Postscript: It has been remarked elsewhere that this entire story has received virtually no mention in conventional print or broadcast media. As of the moment, a Google News search turns up a passing mention in USA TODAY (scroll down to final paragraph) and this scintillating analysis in the transcript of an online chat with Washington Post sportswriter Tony Kornheiser:
Richmond, Va.: Any thoughts on ESPN.com getting rid of Gregg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback column because of remarks he made in a column on another Web site? Seems like overkill to me.

* * *

I have no idea who Gregg Easterbrook is. I think there are far too many Web sites now including this Web site. I think you people who spend more than 1 hr a day looking at Web sites should be transformed into giant bugs and crows should fly over and eat you. Are you happy now? --Tony
Update: The New Republic has posted its own statement on Easterbrook and his remarks, which to its credit does not sound at all like a prelude to a firing.


Lockyer? Why, Ah Don't Hardly Know Yer!


In the early days leading up to the California gubernatorial recall, I praised our Democratic state Attorney General Bill Lockyer on the occasion of his cautioning Governor Gray Davis not to engage in what he memorably called "puke politics" in order to hold on to his office. At the time, it was expected that former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan would run and would be the leading candidate to replace Davis if Davis were to be recalled. Lockyer threatened to throw his support to Riordan if Davis didn't keep to the high road in the campaign.

Ultimately, Riordan did not run because he was caught by surprise when his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy. Now we learn that although he voted against recalling Governor Davis, Bill Lockyer voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger rather than for the principal Democratic candidate to replace Davis, Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante. And it is Bustamante, rather than Davis, who seems to have been the target of Lockyer's scorn in casting his ballot, as indicated in these comments to reporters:

You know the people in your profession really well. You know who works hard and who doesn't. You know who is honest and who isn't. Cops know that about cops. Doctors know that about doctors. I know that about politicians. The common thing to all these professions is none of them say it. That's all I'm going to say.
Lockyer is generally regarded as a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for Governor in 2006. He presumably expects some advantage from this disclosure of his vote on the recall. And his open hostility to Bustamante suggests that he sees the Lt. Governor as a man whose political clout is fading fast.


Making Such a Production Out of It


Good day, gentle readers, and we are back on the air. First order of business, of course, is to offer up a few remarks on the Los Angeles production of Mel Brooks' musical, The Producers, which this Fool attended on Friday evening in the company of his indispensable wife and a Band of imported Zanies, old friends brought together for the occasion.

To sum it up, this show is a hoot-and-a-half, pure fun, not a sombre thought in its head. The entire cast, from leads Jason Alexander and Martin Short on down through the multiple-role-filling members of the chorus, works and works and makes it all look effortless. I laughed my Fool head off, and the rest of the Friday night audience did likewise.

Getting this show across in Los Angeles must pose a particular challenge, because the Pantages Theater is so big. The Pantages is a beautifully restored Art Deco movie palace and it is enormous, vastly larger than a typical Broadway theater. For a show to be readable in that cavernous space requires a high level of energy from the stage, and if the effort of generating that energy is too obvious it can be self-defeating. This cast managed the trick, to their collective credit.

I have been pondering what the musical version is "about." Those who are familiar with the original film will recall that it is essentially a morality tale: innocent neurotic accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) is led astray by the older, desperate and conniving producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel). The film ends with most of the major characters either maimed or in jail. It is plain that Mel Brooks was not really trying to teach any moral lessons -- his scoundrels are much too appealing to do that effectively -- but at least the outlines are there.

In the musical version, nothing resembling a moral lesson is to be found within at least a city block of the theater. Yes, Max and Leo wind up in jail, but they do so only after Leo has been allowed to elope to Rio with the pair's statuesque and limber Swedish receptionist Ulla and their stay in Sing Sing lasts all of one brief scene, whereupon they are released (as a reward for teaching musical theater skills to their fellow prisoners), open a new show on Broadway and, yes, Live Happily Ever After, successful beyond the dreams of avarice. I am left with the thought that the stage version is ultimately about nothing so much as the art of Selling It: Max selling Leo on the investment kiting scheme that will produce "Springtime for Hitler," Max selling little old ladies on buying into the show, various show-biz characters selling themselves to write, direct or appear in the play, and ultimately the ensemble right there in the Pantages selling the audience on their show about selling a show.

Back in July, I mentioned and linked to Terry Teachout's reflections on the occasion of his revisiting the Broadway production. After waxing nostalgic about his own discovery of Jewish comedy of the late 50's and 60's -- itself a part of that Ed Sullivan/middlebrow cultural milieu that he has elsewhere described so well -- he ultimately finds Mel Brooks generally, and this show in particular, to be a bit of a dinosaur:

To see The Producers is to be immersed one final time in that older style of pressure-cooker comedy, and for those of us who were born before 1960 or so, the experience is as sweetly nostalgic as a trip to the state fair, which I rather doubt is what Mel Brooks had in mind. My guess is that he still thinks it's titillating, even shocking, to put swishy Nazis on stage. It's no accident that he hasn't made a movie for years and years: Broadway is the last place in America where he could possibly draw a crowd with that kind of humor, and it's not an especially young crowd, either.
That seems too bleak a view to me. Unlike New York, Los Angeles does not have a preexisting "older audience" that traditionally or habitually comes out to the theater. If you want the audience to come, you either sell a lot of seats as part of a series subscription (as was done here with The Producers in the earlier portions of its run) or you provide a show that really delivers something that a large audience is drawn to. The Producers in Los Angeles seems to have succeeded at that, and it has done so by jettisoning completely the irony that is the hallmark of contemporary entertainment. There is not, I think, an ironic moment to be found in these nearly three hours of singin' and dancin' and schticking it up. Maybe the show has succeeded because of the nostalgic appeal of an irony-free zone. Or perhaps irony has just worn out its welcome for the time being and The Producers' lack of it succeeds on the principle that Everything Old is New Again. Whichever it may be, I can attest to the splendid time had by all and commend this production to anyone who finds themselves in Los Angeles between now and the show's closing in early January.

Meanwhile, as I've been drafting this, I find that one of my companions of Friday evening has posted a far less sententious report of the same event over at Futurballa.


A Southbound Soirée


For a refreshing change, it is pleasure rather than business that will limit posting for the next few days. Old friends from points north, including Rick the friendly futurballist, are descending upon us for a long-planned weekend of merriment highlighted by a jaunt to the Art Deco recesses of Hollywood's Pantages Theatre for the west coast production of The Producers. At last, an opportunity to put Terry Teachout's assessment to the test! Reports will follow, as warranted and as opportunity presents itself.