January 24, 2018 § Leave a comment
I watched both the AFC and NFC Championship games last weekend. I haven’t watched as much football or even NHL hockey this year and I’ve been trying to figure out why. In terms of hockey, my team sucks, but, I’ve remained a fan of hockey in general when the Habs have sucked in the past. When it comes to the NFL, to be a Chicago Bears fan is to know misery. They’ve sucked almost continually for the past 35 years. So I’ve watched a lot of football, despite my team being in last place.
But this year, something has changed. I have long had issues with football, the injuries, the concussions. I played football when I was younger. I have lingering injury issues, and I don’t want to think about how many concussions I’ve had. No one cared about head injuries in the late 80s/early 90s. And then there’s the question of football and CTE. I wrote about this a few months ago, when the Commissioner of the Canadian FootbalL League, Randy Ambrosie (a former CFL player) insisted that we don’t know if there’s a connection between CTE and football. Funny, the NFL has admitted there is a connection.
Hockey isn’t doing much better. We have been subject to a steady stream of stories about ex-NHL players being caught up in drug addiction, depression, and early death. This has happened to stars like Theoren Fleury and Mike Richards, and it’s happened to former enforcers, like Chris Nilan, Derek Boogard, and so on. Earlier this month, I read an article about former enforcer Matt Johnson, who was in jail in Los Angeles after vandalizing a Denny’s restaurant on New Year’s Eve. Johnson claimed to be homeless and refused legal help, at least initially. His dad reported how worried he was about his son, and how much he’s tried to help him in recent years. Or how about Kevin Stevens, who was one of the greatest power forwards of the early 90s, who devolved into addiction to painkillers?
To me, it seems that these athletes are sacrificing their bodies, their brains, and their futures to play. And, yes, part of that is their own choice. But, there are also structural issues here. Teams have historically pushed their players to play injured or not. Teams have pushed painkillers on players. And then there’s brain injuries. The NFL has come to an agreement with a group of former players for payouts for concussion damage, though there are problems there.
But that doesn’t do much for the current game. Think of Houston quarterback Tom Savage continuing to play after appearing to convulse after hitting his head on the ground. Or how about Rob Gronkowski in the AFC Championship game, when he was knocked silly by Barry Church of the Jacksonville Jaguars. After the hit on Gronkowski, the Jaguars celebrated, and the commentators, Jim Nantz and Tony Romo (a former NFL quarterback), just carried on as if nothing major happened.
Then there’s the NHL. A group of former players has brought a class-action suit against it. The league’s response? To challenge the science behind the linkages between hockey and brain injuries. Seriously. It is otherwise doing next to nothing, beyond a ‘concussion protocol’ that is as much of a joke as the NFL’s. This week, TSN in Canada reported that former NHL star Eric Lindros, whose career (and that of his brother) was ended by concussions, and Montreal Canadiens’ team physician Dr. David Mulder, approached the NHL last year and challenged the league to donate $31 million (or $1 million per team) to fund research in brain trauma. The league has ignored them.
And so, ultimately, I am finding it increasingly difficult to watch NFL or CFL football or NHL hockey. Watching 200+ pound men smash into each other at full speed, in many cases purposely targeting the head is nauseating. And wondering about the long-term effect of concussions is equally nauseating.
Both hockey and football are brutally physical sports. Hockey is also played at incredible speeds on ice. That’s part of the game. Hitting is central to both. I don’t have a problem with that. I do have a problem with blatant head shots. I have a problem with pumping players full of painkillers to get them back on the ice/field. I have a problem with professional leagues denying a connection between concussions, head shots, and CTE. I have a problem with commentators and fans acting like these kinds of hits are acceptable.
And until fans and advertizers really do question these forms of brutality against the bodies of professional athletes, nothing is going to change.
January 22, 2018 § 6 Comments
I was reading a scholarly article on polling and the issues it creates in terms of the democratic process last week. In the article, the authors note many of the problems with polling, and there are many. I worked for a major national polling firm in Canada for a couple of years whilst in undergrad. There, I learned just how dodgy supposedly ‘scientific’ polling can be.
My issues have less to do with methodology, where random computer-generated phone numbers are called. Rather, they have to do with both the wording of questions and the manner in which they are asked. I should also note that the rise of cell phones complicates the ability to do random sampling. Something like 48% of American adults only have cell phones (I have not had a landline since 2002, a decade before I emigrated to the US). It is illegal to use random computer-generated calling to cell phones in the US.
The authors of the study I read commented on the manner in which questions were worded, and the ways in which this could impact results. For example, last year during the great debate about the repeal of Obamacare, it became very obvious that a not insignificant proportion of Americans did not realize that the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, was the legislative act that created what we call Obamacare. So you have people demanding the repeal of Obamacare, thinking they would still have their ACA. Obamacare was originally a pejorative term created by (mostly Republican) opponents to the ACA. They figured that by tying the legislation to a president wildly unpopular amongst their constituency (if not the population as a whole), they could whip up public opposition to the ACA. It worked.
But now consider a polling question concerning the popularity or unpopularity of Obamacare/ACA. Does a pollster ask people about their thoughts on Obamacare or on the ACA? Or does that pollster construct a question that includes the slash: Obamacare/ACA? How, exactly does the pollster tackle this issue? Having worked on a team that attempted to create neutral-language questions for a variety of issues at the Canadian polling firm, I can attest this is a difficult thing to do, whether the poll we were trying to create was to ask consumers their thoughts on a brand of toothpaste or the policies and behaviours of the government.
But this was only one part of the problem. I started off with the polling firm working evenings, working the phones to conduct surveys. We were provided with scripts on our computer screens that we were to follow word-for-word. We were also monitored actively by someone, to make sure we were following the script as we were meant to, and to make sure that we were actually interviewing someone taking the poll seriously. More than once, I was instructed to abandon a survey by the monitor. But the monitor didn’t listen to all the calls. There was something like 125 work stations in the polling room. And 125 individuals were not robots. Each person had different inflections and even accents in their voices. Words did not all sound the same coming out of the mouths of all 125 people.
When I had an opportunity to work with the monitor to listen in on calls, I was struck by how differently the scripts sounded. One guy I worked with was from Serbia, and had a pretty thick Serbian accent, so he emphasized some words over others; in most cases, I don’t think his emphasis made a different. But sometimes it could. Another guy had a weird valley girl accent. The result was the same as the Serbian’s. And some people just liked to mess with the system. It was easy to do. They did this by the way they spoke certain words, spitting them out, using sarcasm, or making their voice brighter and happier than in other spots.
Ever since this work experience in the mid-90s, I have been deeply sceptical of polling data. There are already reasons, most notably the space for sampling error, which means that, with the margin of error, most polls are accurate within plus or minus 3%. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but the difference between 47% and 53% is significant when it comes to matters of public policy. Or support for candidates. And more to the point, the media does not report the margin of error, or if it does, does so in a throwaway sentence, and the headline reads that 47% of people support/don’t support this or that.
But, ultimately, it is the working and means of asking that makes me deeply suspicious of polling data. And as polling data becomes even more and more obsessed over by politicians, the media, and other analysts, I can’t help but think that polling is doing more than most things to damage democracy, and not just in the United States, but in any democracy where polling is a national obsession.
January 19, 2018 § Leave a comment
Rough and Rowdy is a form of amateur boxing native to West Virginia. It appears to me to be the grandson of the 18th-19th century Southern backwoods fighting style known as Rough and Tumble, or Gouging. It was so-called because the ultimate goal was to gouge out your opponent’s eye. There were very few rules involved in Rough and Tumble and, while it wasn’t exactly prize fighting, winning was a source of pride in the local community.
The men who fought in Gouging were backwoods farmers, it was common in swamps and mountain communities. In other words, the men who fought were what the élite of Southern society called (and still call) ‘white trash.’ As an aside, if you would like to know more about the plight of poor white people historically in the US, I cannot recommend Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America enough. Nevermind the fact that the story is not untold, historians have studied and published on poor people for a long time, but that’s what publishers do to your book, they create silly subtitles to sell more copies.
I digress. The West Virginia Rough and Rowdy is a continuation. The Guardian produced a quick 7 minute documentary of a championship tournament in West Virginia, you can watch it here.
I have some serious problems after watching this. The first is the behaviour of New York City-based Barstool Sports, led by Dave Portnoy (a Massachusetts boy, I might add, from Boston’s North Shore). Barstool bought up the rights to the tournament, and, according to the documentary, stood to make $300,000 on it. The winner of the tournament wins $1,000. The fighters are getting nothing out of this, other than glory or shame, depending on who wins. Portnoy is walking away with the profits. He wants to make this the new MMA, to take Rough and Rowdy nationwide. But he profits,the fighters don’t. He doesn’t have a problem with that, of course, because he figures they’d be doing it anyway.
The community where this takes place is an impoverish borough in West Virginia, in former coal-mining country. All of the social problems of Appalachia can be found there, from deep, deep-seated poverty to drugs and everything else. It is easy to dismiss the people who live there using whatever term you want. Portnoy calls them rednecks. He also argues that they would call themselves by the same term. After living in Southern Appalachia in Tennessee, I would think he’s right. But THEY call themselves that. I did not think it was my place to use the same term, given its pejorative meaning in our culture.
Essentially, while it is true that this tournament existed before Portnoy came in, he is exploiting a poor community, with a sly grin to his viewers on the web, about the fat rednecks fighting for their entertainment. The fighting style of most of these men is poor, if you were to look at it from a boxing or MMA perspective. Of course it is, they’re amateurs, they don’t have training. They fight as if they’re brawling in a bar. And that’s what Rough and Rowdy is: amateur fighting. It is not professional boxing.
The comments on the YouTube site are exactly what you’d expect. Commentators mock the fighters for their lack of boxing style. And, then, of course, come the stereotypes. The documentary centres around one young man, George. George has recently lost his job and he wants to win the tournament and give the $1,000 to his mother. He’s a confident in his abilities before stepping into the ring with a man a full foot taller than him, and who must have at least 60 pounds on him. Not surprisingly, George loses the fight. But the comments mock him. One commenter says that George died of a meth overdose three weeks later. And so on.
And therein lies the problem. Too many people seem to think that mocking the poor white folk of the Appalachians is easy. They’re dismissed as stupid, idiotic, as rednecks and white trash. And worse. This is universal, too. This is not a conservative/liberal thing. The poor white people of Appalachia have been abandoned. Completely. They’ve been left to their own devices in hard-scrabble areas where there are no jobs. The coal mining companies pulled out. What industry existed there has also pulled out. Most small Appalachian towns have little more than a Dollar General and a gas station. People get by, in part due to family connections and grow what food they can on their land. They scrounge for other things, like roots and scrap metal, that they can sell for next to nothing. They use food stamps. And sometimes they just go hungry, or worse.
JD Vance’s insipid Hillbilly Elegy has added to this, and has re-shaped the conversation nationally. Vance argued that the plight of Appalachia is the fault of the Appalachians themselves. He blames ‘hillbilly’ culture, argues it has engendered social rot, and has dismissed poverty as secondary. Put simply: Vance is flat-out wrong. He simply seeks to continue in the long American tradition of blaming the poor for their poverty.
That’s not how it works. Appalachia has been struggling for the better part of a half-century. Politicians, including the current president, continue to ignore it. And then turn around and pull a Vance and blame the poverty on the poor. That is a lazy, self-centred, immoral position to take.
January 17, 2018 § Leave a comment
I’ve been binge-watching The Man in the High Castle. It is truly a TV show for our cynical times. There are no heroes in this show. Everyone is deeply compromised. Some are even horrible people. For those who don’t know, the show is set in a dystopic 1960s in the United States. The Allies lost World War II, and the United States is split in three. The eastern seaboard is the American Reich. The West Coast is occupied by the Japanese, and there is a dodgy, moral vacuum in the middle, the neutral zone, a lawless respite from both.
The main character is Juliana Crain, who is a spoiled, horrible, selfish young woman. She betrays nearly everyone she meets, and leaves a body count behind her. Ostensibly, she’s trying to figure out what happened to her half-sister, Trudy, a Resistance fighter killed by the Japanese security forces. Her boyfriend, Frank, is the closest thing to a hero in this show, as he is drawn closer and closer to the Resistance in the wake of Juliana’s multiple betrayals.
But otherwise, the show gets intimate and personal with Obergruppenfürher Joe Smith, a former American soldier, and his family, creepy as they are. Smith, not surprisingly, is a murderous, horrible human being. And he’s a Nazi. We do get a sense of honour from Japanese Trade Minister Nobosuke Tagami, whose loyalties are never entirely clear. But he is an honourable man who works for a violent, brutal dictatorship. Then there’s Kampeitei (Military Police) Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido. He’s about a milimetre short of being a psychotic killer, so determined is he to make sure law and order is maintained in the Pacific States, and in San Francisco in particular.
The remaining characters are all deeply flawed, morally vacuous, and horrible.
I find it interesting to be watching a TV show that humanizes Nazis, and attempts to play on my sympathies with them. For example, Smith’s son, Thomas, is a teenaged boy who, it turns out, has muscular dystrophy, which comes from his father’s side. The Obergruppenführer’s brother had it as well. As per Nazi ideology, he was liquidated. And that is what Thomas must be too. When the diagnosis is delivered to Smith, he is at a loss as to what to do. He is the most powerful man in the American Reich, though he lives a pretty typical suburban life at home on Long Island (New York City is the capital of the American Reich, as DC was nuked during the war). He must, he knows, kill his son. And yet, surprise, surprise, he cannot. In order to protect his family, he instead kills the family doctor, who delivered the diagnosis. I know, a shock. A Nazi being a nasty piece of work.
Smith’s protegé is Joe Blake, who Juliana kind of falls for. He’s a Nazi undercover, sent to find Juliana, who has knowledge of the secret films of the titular Man in the High Castle (played brilliantly by Stephen Root), and, more than that, has the actual film(s), which Trudy had given her right before she was killed. He finds her first in the Neutral Zone and then follows her back to San Francisco. Meanwhile, Juliana has cozied up to the Resistance herself, and appears to be a member of it as she tries to find out what happened to her sister. She is supposed to lead Joe Blake into the hands of the Resistance. But she doesn’t. Instead she betrays the Resistance and Blake makes it back to New York City.
The summary of Episode 5 of Season 2 notes that Juliana will have to betray someone close to her. By this point in the show, I am left wondering who is left for her to betray. She has already betrayed Frank. And the Resistance, leading to at least three of her erstwhile colleagues being killed. And she seems to have no moral qualms about this.
And this is the thing about the characters of this show. There is no moral compass. Each is an actor entirely interested in her/his own fate. Occasionally there is co-operation, but mostly there is a collection of atomistic individuals who will stop at nothing to get what they want.
And, of course, this is completely compelling TV. I can’t turn away from it. And yet, I can’t help but think there is something deeply wrong with being engrossed in a TV show that humanizes Nazis (whilst still showing what horrible people they are). It would seem to me that perhaps Nazis are beyond the pale. And yet, they’re not. I’m not sure this is a good sign for our culture and society.
January 8, 2018 § Leave a comment
Last week I wrote a post about the conundrum we face in dealing with President Trump, hockey rumours, and global warming. The basic problem is the response of us as individuals, and our feelings of powerlessness, vs. the fact that we can band together to form interest groups in response. In the case of the latter, I always think of the original boycott.
The original boycott occurred in 1880 in County Mayo, Ireland. Captain Charles Boycott lent his name to a campaign against him by the Irish Land League. The Land League was a political organization in late 19th century Ireland with the goal of alleviating the plight of poor Irish tenant famers. The League’s ultimate goal was to abolish the great landowners of Ireland to allow these poor tenant farmers to own the land they worked. The Irish Land League was a central component in the radicalization of Catholic/Nationalist Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, following its mobilization by Daniel O’Connell in the first half of the century. And this radicalization, of course, led ultimately to the Irish Revolution and Irish independence in the early 20th century.
In 1880, Boycott was the land agent for Lord Erne in Lough Mask, Co. Mayo. He became the object of ire of the Land League due to his enthusiasm for evicting the poor tenant farmers of Erne’s land. Thus, the League encouraged his employees (most of whom were Irish and Catholic, as opposed to the Englishman Boycott) to withdraw their labour. And then the League and its supporters in Co. Mayo encouraged local merchants to not serve Boycott. Of course, some merchants required some encouragement to participate, which the local peasantry was only happy to provide.
Boycott, frustrated by his treatment, wrote a letter complaining of his plight to the Times of London. And the boycott became national (and international, the Irish diaspora in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand followed the news closely) news. This led to an influx of reporters from London, who interviewed the locals and explained the issue (not always fairly) to the readers of the London papers.
With no one to serve him in the local stores, and no one to work for him, Boycott was forced to rely upon gangs of Orangemen, protected by the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Irish Constabulary, as well as the British Army, to harvest the crops. In the end, it cost over £10,000 to harvest around £500 worth of crops. The boycotters won, at least locally.
What was the long-term effect of the first boycott? Not much, at least locally. Boycott left Lord Erne’s service, but he was replaced by another agent. And evictions continued apace around Ireland. And the plight of tenant farmers did not improve all that much.
But, the first boycott was a symbolic victory. It brought greater exposure for the Land League, though it was ultimately unsuccessful in its campaign for the Three Fs: fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure. But, even then, the Land League was, as noted, part of the radicalization of Catholic Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, which led to the birth of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and, ultimately, the Irish Republican Army (the first one, led by Michael Collins, not the re-constituted IRA that was behind the Troubles in Northern Ireland).
So, ultimately, taken together with other events, the first boycott was ultimately successful. And maybe this speaks to something else. We seem to expect that our actions against whatever we see as oppressive to be immediately rewarded, which is no doubt a response to our general belief in immediate reward/punishment in our world today. Our actions as individuals need to be part of a larger movement, and we need to be patient in that larger movement in order to effect change.
For example, where I live in Western Massachusetts, a collection of like-minded people have created a culture where creativity, tolerance, and inclusivity is central. But this was’t created overnight. While Western Massachusetts has a history of alternative subcultures and communities, our present culture was carefully and slowly created and reinforced over the past 30-40 years, beginning first down in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts, and that has slowly crept up into the hilltowns on both side of the river valley. In other words, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
December 11, 2017 § Leave a comment
Years ago, I bought Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ album, Dig Lazarus Dig!!! Because of the way iTunes downloaded the album to my MacBook and iPod, the tracks were reversed and I didn’t really notice. Thus, for me, the album began with the epic ‘More News from Nowhere‘ and ended with the raucous title track. It probably took me close to a year to realize that the song order was backwards and, really, I didn’t care. I have since re-ordered the album in my iTunes and the tracks run the way they were supposed to. But, for me, it doesn’t really sound right, though it is more sensible to start with the raucous and end with the epic.
Last week, Kendrick Lamar, the second coming of conscious hip hop (or Jesus, take your pick), re-released his most recent album, DAMN. But, here’s the thing, this is the COLLECTORS EDITION. So what did Lamar do to make this a collector’s edition? New tracks? Remixes? Remixes AND new tracks? Oh, hell no. Lamar just re-ordered the album, from last to first. And, the world has confirmed his brilliance.
Now, DAMN was a mighty fine album. And while I prefer the re-ordering of the tracks to play it back to first, all I can think is, really?!? This is brilliance? Lamar is playing us for fools.