Saturday, February 23, 2013

Why The Wire is So Awesome

I’ve been trying to put into words for some time why The Wire is so incredibly good, and I guess the biggest reason is that it doesn’t feel like a TV program at all. It is the most realistic TV program, for my money, ever filmed. Here are some of the ways:

-It’s the complete opposite of Terminator 2 or The Matrix. It looks like the product came out of any garden-variety video camera (an insanely high quality one, but not doctored at all).

-It is devoid of TV trickery. There are no flashbacks, no dramatic reveals from peoples’ pasts, no kitschy guest-stars, no CGI, few cold opens and little camera skullduggery. There’s not even any music on the show, for Pete’s sake; what little music you hear is completely digetic, meaning that the characters interact with it (like it was coming out of a boombox). The city is real, the characters refer to real-life political events, and it was filmed on location in Baltimore.

-The next, really big, reason is that the actors do not feel like actors. They feel like real people. Part of that is the writers having an amazingly, unbelievably good feel for what they can do with each character. I can’t think of a single time where a person has done something that wasn’t believable for their character to do. Certainly the characters have grown and changed and evolved over time, but it’s always natural, organic growth. You never have a just out-of-left-field change because the writers needed something to work a little better, and they rarely feel stagnant in their roles either. Even characters who would be “stock” characters on other shows—the angry, obstructive boss, the disgruntled cop who knows what’s best but can’t pitch it to the boss, the gangland drug dealers—are anything but stock on this show. Everybody is amazing.

That willingness to create characters and then work within those characters’ roles—both on the part of the writers and the actors—makes for just a stunning storytelling experience. When I got started on the Wire and was just getting into Season 1, I read somewhere that 1 was kind of a mediocre season, and that you just kinda had to push through it and keep going into 2 and 3 to get the full Wire experience. That didn’t mean that Season 1 was bad; it meant that any season of The Wire, standing on its own, didn’t mean nearly as much as it did as a part of the whole. Each season builds on itself and the seasons that came before it in the most incredibly organic, continuity-focused way I’ve ever seen. It’s brilliant. By season 4, which I’m finishing up now, the body of work that underlies the show just informs what you’re seeing on the screen in so many different ways. (And don’t think that they’re just recycling old characters and having them interact with each other in new ways, either; each new season has added another cast and taken on a completely different environment. Season 1 was the projects, 2 the waterfront, 3 Baltimore politics, 4 the school system, and 5 will be the newsroom. Each one came with its own new cast.)

-Part of the show’s genius is allowing new relationships and old to just sort of grow towards each other. Picture a grassy field, freshly mowed. Each blade is a character with his or her own dreams, aspirations and life experiences. As the season progresses and the blades grow, they touch and interact with other blades, inspiring different scenes and experiences as the characters bounce off each other, cooperate with each other and wreck each other’s plans. By the end of the season, it’s a twisted, tangled jungle of brilliant, continuous storytelling. It can be hard to follow at times—the Wire is definitely a show that it takes effort and time to understand, and heaven help you if you drop it for a while and then pick it up again later on—but it’s worth every minute of what did he mean by that?

Friday, February 22, 2013

NFL First-Round Picks: The Data

For a couple of years now I've been dumping my football posts on Oak Creek Patch, where I've been writing as a Local Voices blogger. Yesterday, I decided to start reposting my football posts that I've done there on this outlet. This post bookends yesterday's effort on the past five years of NFL first-round picks.

Total Players: 160 (including the No. 32 pick in 2008)
Gigantic Hits: 18 (11.25%)
Hits: 68 (42.5%)
(Total Good ‘Uns: 53.75%)
So-So/Too Soon To Tell: 40 (25%)
Whiff: 34 (21.25%)
(Total Bad ‘Uns: 46.25%)


Gigantic Hit

(2) Ndamukong Suh (DT, Lions)
(14) Earl Thomas (S, Seahawks)
(15) Jason Pierre-Paul (DE, Giants)


(3) Gerald McCoy (DT, Bucs)
(4) Trent Williams (OT, Redskins)
(5) Eric Berry (S, Chiefs)
(6) Russell Okung (T, Seahawks)
(7) Joe Haden (CB, Browns)
(9) C.J. Spiller (RB, Bills)
(12) Anthony Davis (OT, Niners)
(17) Mike Iupati (G, Niners)
(18) Maurkice Pouncey (C, Steelers)
(19) Sean Weatherspoon (LB, Falcons)
(21) Jermaine Gresham (TE, Bengals)
(22) Demaryius Thomas (WR, Broncos)
(23) Bryan Bulaga (OT, Packers)
(24) Dez Bryant (WR, Cowboys)

So-so/Too Soon To Tell

(1) Sam Bradford (QB, Rams)
(10) Tyson Alualu (DT, Jaguars)
(11) Ryan Mathews (RB, Chargers)
(13) Brandon Graham (DE, Eagles)
(16) Derrick Morgan (DE, Titans)
(20) Kareem Jackson (CB, Texans)
(26) Dan Williams (NT, Cardinals)
(27) Devin McCourty (CB, Patriots)*
(28) Jared Odrick (DT, Dolphins)
(29) Kyle Wilson (CB, Jets)
(32) Patrick Robinson (CB, Saints)


(8) Rolando McClain (ILB, Raiders)
(25) Tim Tebow (QB, Broncos)
(30) Jahvid Best (RB, Lions)
(31) Jerry Hughes (DE/OLB, Colts)


Gigantic Hit

(22) Percy Harvin (WR, Vikings)
(26) Clay Matthews (OLB, Packers)


(1) Matthew Stafford (QB, Lions)
(6) Andre Smith (OT, Bengals)
(8) Eugene Monroe (OT, Jaguars)
(9) B.J. Raji (DT, Packers)
(10) Michael Crabtree (WR, Niners)
(13) Brian Orakpo (OLB, Redskins)
(14) Malcolm Jenkins (CB, Saints)
(15) Brian Cushing (ILB, Texans)
(17) Josh Freeman (QB, Bucs)
(19) Jeremy Maclin (WR, Eagles)
(20) Brandon Pettigrew (TE, Lions)
(21) Alex Mack (C, Browns)
(23) Michael Oher (OT, Ravens)
(25) Vontae Davis (CB, Dolphins)
(28) Eric Wood (C, Bills)
(29) Hakeem Nicks (WR, Giants)

So-So/Too Soon To Tell

(3) Tyson Jackson (DT, Chiefs)
(7) Darius Heyward-Bey (WR, Raiders)
(12) Knowshon Moreno (RB, Broncos)
(18) Robert Ayers (DE, Broncos)
(27) Donald Brown (RB, Colts)
(30) Kenny Britt (WR, Titans)
(31) Chris “Beanie” Wells (RB, Cardinals)
(32) Evander “Ziggy” Hood (DT, Steelers)


(2) Jason Smith (OT, Rams)
(4) Aaron Curry (LB, Seahawks)
(5) Mark Sanchez (QB, Jets)
(11) Aaron Maybin (OLB, Bills)
(16) Larry English (OLB, Chargers)
(24) Peria Jerry (DT, Falcons)


Gigantic Hit

(1) Jake Long (OT, Dolphins)
(3) Matt Ryan (QB, Falcons)
(18) Joe Flacco (QB, Ravens)
(24) Chris Johnson (RB, Titans)


(2) Chris Long (DE, Rams)
(10) Jerod Mayo (ILB, Patriots)
(12) Ryan Clady (OT, Broncos)
(13) Jonathan Stewart (RB, Panthers)
(15) Branden Albert (OT, Chiefs)
(21) Sam Baker (OT, Falcons)
(26) Duane Brown (OT, Texans)
(30) Dustin Keller (TE, Jets)

So-So/Too Soon To Tell

(4) Darren McFadden (RB, Raiders)
(9) Keith Rivers (LB, Bengals)
(11) Leodis McKelvin (CB, Bills)
(15) Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (CB, Cardinals)
(17) Gosder Cherilus (OT, Lions)
(20) Aqib Talib (CB, Bucs)
(22) Felix Jones (RB, Cowboys)
(23) Rashard Mendenhall (RB, Steelers)
(25) Mike Jenkins (CB, Cowboys)
(27) Antoine Cason (CB, Chargers)
(31) Kenny Phillips (S, Giants)


(5) Glenn Dorsey (DT, Chiefs)
(6) Vernon Gholston (OLB, Jets)
(7) Sedrick Ellis (DT, Saints)
(8) Derrick Harvey (DE, Jaguars)
(14) Chris Williams (OT, Bears)
(19) Jeff Otah (OT, Panthers)
(28) Lawrence Jackson (DE, Seahawks)
(29) Kentwan Balmer (DT, Niners)
(32) Phillip Merling** (DT, Dolphins)


Gigantic Hit

(2) Calvin Johnson (WR, Lions)
(3) Joe Thomas (OT, Browns)
(7) Adrian Peterson (RB, Vikings)
(11) Patrick Willis (ILB, Niners)
(14) Darrelle Revis (CB, Jets)
(29) Ben Grubbs (G, Ravens)


(6) LaRon Landry (S, Redskins)
(12) Marshawn Lynch (RB, Bills)
(13) Adam Carriker (DT, Rams)
(15) Lawrence Timmons (ILB, Steelers)
(18) Leon Hall (CB, Bengals)
(19) Michael Griffin (S, Titans)
(20) Aaron Ross (CB, Giants)
(21) Reggie Nelson (S, Jaguars)
(23) Dwayne Bowe (WR, Chiefs)
(25) Jon Beason (ILB, Panthers)
(26) Anthony Spencer (OLB, Cowboys)
(28) Joe Staley (OT, Niners)
(31) Greg Olsen (TE, Bears)

So-So/Too Soon To Tell

(5) Levi Brown (OT, Cardinals)
(9) Ted Ginn Jr. (WR/KR, Dolphins)***
(10) Amobi Okoye (DT, Chiefs)
(24) Brandon Meriweather (S, Patriots)
(27) Robert Meacham (WR, Saints)


(1) JaMarcus Russell (QB, Raiders)
(4) Gaines Adams (DE, Bucs)
(8) Jamaal Anderson (DE, Falcons)
(16) Justin Harrell (DT, Packers)
(17) Jarvis Moss (DE, Broncos)
(22) Brady Quinn (QB, Browns)
(30) Craig “Buster” Davis (WR, Chargers)
(32) Anthony Gonzalez (WR, Colts)


Gigantic Hit

(6) Vernon Davis (TE, Niners)
(12) Haloti Ngata (DT, Ravens)
(29) Nick Mangold (C, Jets)


(1) Mario Williams (DE, Texans)
(2) Reggie Bush (RB, Saints)
(4) D’Brickashaw Ferguson (OT, Jets)
(5) A.J. Hawk (sigh)**** (ILB, Packers)
(7) Michael Huff (S, Raiders)
(8) Donte’ Whitner (S, Bills)
(11) Jay Cutler (QB, Broncos)
(17) Chad Greenway (ILB, Vikings)
(19) Antonio Cromartie (CB, Chargers)
(20) Tamba Hali (OLB, Chiefs)
(23) Davin Joseph (G, Bucs)
(24) Jonathan Joseph (CB, Bengals)
(25) Santonio Holmes (WR, Steelers)
(27) DeAngelo Williams (RB, Panthers)
(28) Mercedes Lewis (TE, Jaguars)
(30) Joseph Addai (RB, Colts)
(32) Mathias Kiwanuka (DE, Giants)

So-So/Too Soon To Tell

(9) Ernie Sims (ILB, Lions)
(13) Kamerion Wimbley (OLB, Browns)
(14) Brodrick Bunkley (DT, Eagles)
(22) Manny Lawson (OLB, Niners)
(31) Kelly Jennings (CB, Seahawks)


(3) Vince Young (QB, Titans)
(10) Matt Leinart (QB, Cardinals)
(15) Tye Hill (CB, Rams)
(16) Jason Allen (CB, Dolphins)
(18) Bobby Carpenter (OLB, Cowboys)
(21) Laurence Maroney (RB, Patriots)
(26) John McCargo (DT, Bills)


-How good are the Ravens? They got three Gigantic Hits (Joe Flacco, Haloti Ngata, Ben Grubbs) and one Hit (Michael Oher) in their four picks. Nobody had a better ratio, although the Jets, Lions, Vikings and Niners all collected two Gigantic Hits each.
-In fact, the Niners had four Hits (Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree, Joe Staley) to go along with their two Gigantic Hits (Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis); together with a So-So (Lawson) and a Whiff (Balmer), they led the NFL with eight first-round picks in five years. The Broncos were right behind with seven: Thomas (hit), Tebow (whiff), Moreno (so-so), Ayers (so-so), Clady (hit), Jarvis Moss (whiff), Cutler (hit).
-How awful are the Raiders? In five picks, they had one Hit (Michael Huff), two So-So (Darren McFadden, Darius Heyward-Bey) and two huge whiffs (JaMarcus Russell, Rolando McClain). I don't think anybody did worse.

-The Bears somehow had only two first-round picks: Greg Olsen (hit) and Chris Williams (whiff). They did give up two first-round picks to poach Jay Cutler (hit) from the Broncos, so I guess there's that.
-I was kind of stunned at the Browns, who collected a Gigantic Hit in Joe Thomas, plus two Hits in Joe Haden and Alex Mack. Yeah, Kamerion Wimbley was so-so and Brady Quinn was a bust, but you'd still expect them to finish better than fourth place in their division more often than twice in the last eight years. In fact, the last time they won their division was 1989, and the last time they spent two consecutive years better than fourth place was 2001-02.
-Sixteen "good" players have changed teams, including 15 of 68 "hits" (36.7%). The "hits" include Vontae Davis (Dolphins to Colts), Mario Williams (Texans to Bills), Reggie Bush (Saints to Dolphins), Donte' Whitner (Bills to Niners), Jay Cutler (Broncos to Bears), Antonio Cromartie (Chargers to Jets), Santonio Holmes (Steelers to Jets), Greg Olsen (Bears to Panthers), Joseph Addai (Colts to Patriots)*****, Jonathan Joseph (Bengals to Texans), LaRon Landry (Redskins to Jets), Marshawn Lynch (Bills to Seahawks), Adam Carriker (Rams to Redskins), Aaron Ross (Giants to Jaguars) and Reggie Nelson (Jaguars to Bengals).

-Ben Grubbs (Ravens to Saints) is the only Gigantic Hit to change teams, although Jake Long (Dolphins) and Joe Flacco (Ravens) are free agents this year. One can expect more players from '08-'09-'10 to do so as their rookie contracts expire; the bulk were from '06 and '07. In fact, 14 of the 30 "hits" from those years changed teams, a rate of 43% which may be closer to the NFL norm; from '08 to '10, among "hits" whose rookie contracts mostly either have yet to expire or expired this offseason, the rate is 2.6% (one player out of 38, Vontae Davis, who was traded last August).

*Now as later, players are listed as their college position, not what they subsequently converted to (safety, in McCourty's case).
**No. 32 pick in 2008; the Patriots forfeited their selection that year due to Spygate, so the first round had only 31 picks.
***Returning ability was treated as a bonus. If you have it, like Ginn, that's considered; if you don't, no big deal.
****I've never been a Hawk fan, but I couldn't justify downgrading him to "so-so".
*****Although he was cut before the regular season.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Football Post: NFL First-Round Picks Success Rate, 2006-2010

For a couple of years now I've been dumping my football posts on Oak Creek Patch, where I've been writing as a Local Voices blogger. Today, I decided to start reposting my football posts that I've done there on this outlet. Enjoy.

Last night I was wondering how often NFL teams "hit" on first-round picks, and how often they just whiff on the players that are supposed to be franchise cornerstones. Being me, I decided to measure it. I went back through the last five eligible NFL first rounds, 2006-2010, and rated the 160* players on a four-category scale. Best was a Gigantic Hit, a great player and talent who's one of the top players at his position. Second-best was a Hit, a solid or above-average NFL starter. Third was So-So or Too Soon To Tell, for "meh" players; fourth was a "whiff", or bust. GH and H were grouped together as "good" players, SS/TSTT and W as "bad".

I can’t stress enough that all definitions are subjective here, and that the five-year timeframe was picked arbitrarily. It’s also important to note that the “so-so/too soon to tell” column has thinned out as you go back farther, because players got more of an opportunity to prove themselves (even past the three-year evaluation period generally used by NFL teams). First-round picks often get multiple chances from NFL teams if the first team doesn’t work out, and many players have thrived in a different environment or scheme. I will say that most players fit fairly easily into "bad" or "good", and that most of the tough calls were on whether a player was "so-so" or a "whiff", or a "hit" or "gigantic hit".

The Data

Teams hit with 86 of 160 players, or 53.75%; the remaining 74 (46.25%) were so-so, still developing or whiffs. Eighteen players were judged Gigantic Hits (11.25% of total), 68 hits (42.5%), 40 so-so/too soon (25%) and 34 whiffs (21.25%).
2010 Draft:
GH: 3 (9.3%)
H: 14 (43.75%)
SS/TSTT: 11 (34.37%)
W: 4 (12.5%)

2009 Draft:
GH: 2 (6.25%)
H: 16 (50%)
SS/TTST: 8 (25/%)
W: 6 (18.75%)

2008 Draft:
GH: 4 (12.5%)
H: 8 (25%)
SS/TTST: 12 (37.5%)
W: 8 (25%)

2007 Draft:
GH: 6 (18.75%)
H: 13 (40.6%)
SS/TTST: 5 (15.6%)
W: 8 (25%)

2006 Draft:
GH: 3 (9.37%)
H: 17 (53%)
SS/TTST: 5 (15.6%)
W: 7 (21.8%)

-The best draft in that timeframe was judged to be 2006, when 20 of 32 players (62%) were graded “hit” or “gigantic hit”. The worst was 2008, which boasted four “gigantic hits” but only eight “hits”, for a total of 37.5% good players. It was the only draft to score below 50% in “good” players. 2007 boasted six “gigantic hits”: (2)** Calvin Johnson, (3) Joe Thomas, (7) Adrian Peterson, (11) Patrick Willis. (14) Darrelle Revis and (29) Ben Grubbs.

-However, it also tied 2008 with the most “whiffs”, with eight. ‘07’s “whiffs”: (1) JaMarcus Russell, (4) Gaines Adams, (8) Jamaal Anderson, (16) Justin Harrell, (17) Jarvis Moss, (22) Brady Quinn, (30) Craig “Buster” Davis and (32) Anthony Gonzalez. ‘08’s: (5) Glenn Dorsey, (6) Vernon Gholston, (7) Sedrick Ellis, (8) Derrick Harvey (unlucky run!), (14) Chris Williams, (19) Jeff Otah, (28) Lawrence Jackson, (29) Kentwan Balmer and (32) Phillip Merling.

Top Ten

Of the 50 examples, players drafted in the top ten broke down thus: 7 “gigantic hits” (14%), 20 “hits” (40%), 10 “so-so” (20%) and 13 “whiffs” (26%). Remember that in April; one in four of those highly touted top-ten picks will bust out, and two in five will not even make ‘solid starter’ status. Only fourteen percent of them per year will fulfill their pre-draft hype. Every year saw at least one top-ten whiff, and only 2010 lacked at least one top-five whiff.

By Position

Eleven quarterbacks were drafted, with two GH (Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco), three hits, one so-so and six whiffs.

Wide receiver
was one of the most popular positions, with fifteen selections. Two GH (Calvin Johnson, Percy Harvin), seven hits, four so-sos and two whiffs.

Running back
: 17 picks. Two GH (Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson), six hits, seven so-sos, two whiffs.

Tight end
: six picks. One GH was the incomparable Vernon Davis; the other five were hits, one coming every year.

: Popular and safe. The nineteen picks boasted two GH (Joe Thomas, Jake Long) and thirteen hits, with just one so-so and three whiffs.

: Two picks, one GH (Ben Grubbs), one hit.

: four picks, one GH (Nick Mangold), three hits. Offensive line is safe.

Defensive end (4-3 only)
: thirteen picks, one GH (Jason Pierre-Paul), four hits, three so-so, five whiffs.

Defensive tackle (4-3 DT, 3-4 NT and DE)
: the most popular and by far the riskiest pick. The twenty-one players included two GH (Ndamukong Suh, Haloti Ngata) and two hits, but eight so-sos and nine whiffs.

Outside ‘backers (3-4 only)
: 11 picks, one GH (Clay Matthews), three hits, two so-sos, five whiffs.

Inside ‘backers (3-4 and 4-3 ILBs, 4-3 OLBs)
: 11 picks, one GH (Patrick Willis), six hits, two so-so, two whiffs.

, another popular one: 15 selections, one GH (Darrelle Revis), seven hits, six so-sos, one bust.

, one of the safest in the draft: nine picks, one GH (Earl Thomas), seven hits, one so-so.

Analysis and Trivia

-If your favorite team is drafting O-line, you have an 84% chance of getting a “hit” (21 of 25) and a 16% chance (4 in 25) of getting a "Gigantic Hit". Those are not bad odds.

-Conversely, you have just a 26% chance (9 of 34) of getting a “hit” with a member of the defensive line, including a stunning 19% chance (4 of 21) with a defensive tackle. Those are horrific odds. The four players that made it? Haloti Ngata (12th in ’06), B.J. Raji (9th in ’09), Ndamukong Suh (2nd in ’10) and Gerald McCoy (3rd in ’10). Everybody drafted No. 13 or later was so-so or worse.

-The positions at which players were least often selected—center, guard, safety, tight end—had by far the best ratios, probably because nobody feels the need to overreach for them. The four positions combined for just 15 selections, but boasted fourteen “hits” and four “Gigantic Hits” (26% chance of Gigantic Hit, better than double the average).

 -Every position had at least one Gigantic Hit, which I did not plan on and was quite surprised to see.

-GMs made 74 selections on offense, 86 on defense.

-The Indianapolis Colts had four selections, one hit (Joseph Addai), one so-so and two whiffs. Admittedly, they drafted 30th, 32nd, 27th and 31st.

-The Packers will pick No. 26 in 2013, barring a trade. Players selected at No. 26 in the marking period include Green Bay’s Clay Matthews (GH), Dallas’s Anthony Spencer (H), Houston’s Duane Brown (H), Arizona’s Dan Williams (so-so) and Buffalo’s John McCargo (whiff). Other recent examples outside the marking period include Kansas City’s Jonathan Baldwin (’11), Houston’s Whitney Mercilus (’12), Seattle’s Chris Spencer (’05, later with Chicago), Cincinnati’s Chris Perry (’04) and San Francisco’s Kwame Harris ('03). (Those last three didn’t amount to much.)

-Green Bay had one GH (Matthews), three hits (Bryan Bulaga, Raji, A.J. Hawk) and one whiff (Justin Harrell) during the marking period. They did not have a first-round pick in '08, but made up for it with two in '09.

The full lists and more data will be available in a subsequent post.

*The 2008 first round had only 31 picks due to Spygate, so I included the Dolphins' Phillip Merling at No. 32.

**Numbers denote draft position.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Free Running in New York: First in Flight

For one ageless moment there is no sound, as I hang suspended in space. There is only bright color, splashes and whirls and hard clear shapes all around me. Blue steel for the water of the river. Dull brown for the cracked, hard trees. Shining silver for the fences, bathed in light so sharp you can taste it on your tongue. Crimson for the platform beneath me, the one I'm falling towards, another that I jumped from. There are no crickets, no bystanders, no passing airplanes or idle conversation or jagged earbud notes in my periphery. For a moment, time stops.

run free chase fly go faster go climb

Jog the first bit, slow and easy, warm-up on a day where toes turn blue. Running shoes going slap-slap-slap on the pavement. Nice and orderly, following the paths, slow painted lines on a gelid canvas before What's that over there? It's huge! It's awesome! Let's go! Left turn through a battered garden, over fences, past bundled-up grandmothers walking golden dogs in knit sweaters, up a stone palisade that becomes a balustrade upon which I balance, wide as a catwalk, up the hill to the colossal monument to the Soldiers and Sailors of the Union, built in an age where nobody did anything small. Mock-ups of naval guns face outward in final battle pose, ready to send Pickett's brave doomed boys tumbling back down the hill, all arms and legs and bloody froth. My companion walks up to the butt-end of the black smoking monster, presses her hips against the pommel. "My dick," she says, and grins.

I try and jump over the next cannon. Miss by just a few inches--catch myself with my left palm, swing my legs to the right, accidental vaulting. A rogue videographer for some documentary catches my eye, waving black mittens, anonymous behind the lens. "Nice one!" "I'll get the next one," I say, and take a running start, climbing invisible stairs, tucking knees upward and soaring like... well, anything but a cannonball. There's room to spare. I jump off another banister, brace myself to air-kick off a bench, step right over a table where Russian grandfathers no doubt play chess in the summertime. It's time to run again.

faster faster play go play run jump run

Over a playground fence, over a glistening rock that was young when the glaciers were old and tired, around and over and through like all good shoelaces, we weave through the park like traceur bullets. Off-road, off-path, off-map, headed for the Sanctuary. Our ears turn red, crinkle and hide from the cold in the folds of gray hoodies. Massive inscrutable landmarks wander slowly by on our right, tattered wooden pilings surrounding an iron portal to nothingness, a rusted scrap of a bridge. Where did it go? Inscrutable New York artwork dots the landscape, an apple core or an inside-out face, no way of telling which. Cold wind sweeps out of the river, blasting against our puny sweats like an atmospheric fire hose. Huge red platforms rise out of the land ahead of us. It's here.


We fiddle around on the ground for a while, practice clumsy rolls and flips and invent remember-when childhood games of jumping from marble slab to marble slap, but the real meat of the Sanctuary is in the red iron sunshades rising above it all. I can't keep myself down any longer. I clamber up one of the wooden chairs and grab onto the rim with gray-black borrowed gloves. Support ridges and struts offer purchase. I claw and hoist and grab until somehow, tentatively, I'm up on top of the world. The view must be great, but I'm too nervous to look around. I walk around the tops of the four platforms clustered together, glancing at the ground through the holes in the floor. Four platforms together... one apart. My heart, clichés be damned, is drumming rat-a-tat-tat. My eyes, my legs, my entire attention are all drawn to the gap; five or six feet, maybe seven, and two feet down over endless space. My brain assesses trajectories and rings up warning flags.


A still, small voice is heard from the ground. "I'm already super impressed with you. You don't have to do that."

Three blade-quick thoughts rustle through my brain. Well screw it I'm gonna do it anyway is the first. I've never broken a bone, and that's partially because I don't do things like this is the second. I imagine the fall to the ground, sharp pain in arm and shoulder, my first real battle scar. No fear. Third is a hot sweet rush, creamy and delicious, pure conviction. There is no countdown, no running start, no drama. I pick my landing spot and jump.


Red metal clangs and rebounds under me as I land with a crash, triumphant atop my goal. I scream in victory, great primal wordless yells and cusses, scaring the shit out of my groundbound companion (who thinks for a second that I broke my ankle or something). Time starts again. I'm king of the world in my gray sweatpants, a sheikh of the sunrise, lord of the bright red platforms and the steel river and all the rest. Titles don't matter. I have flown.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

My Top 11 TV Shows of All Time (1-5)

Editor's Note: This is Andy Tisdel, proprietor of Tisdel's Tirades, talking. This post probably has nothing to do with FEMA Corps, and does not reflect the opinions of a majority of FEMA Corps Team Summit 5; it is nothing more or less than an ordinary blog post. It's also been sitting around on my computer for several months, and it's far past time to release it into the wild.

5. No show has inspired me to write quite as much as Doctor Who, whether in analysis, praise or condemnation. Doctor Who flips a giant middle finger to the idea of easy categorization; it is by turns uproarious fun and heart-melting sadness, splendid drama and utter  camp, carefully plotted storytelling and oh-well-what-the-hell freewheeling zaniness. No show on this list is as bad as Who at its worst, and almost none of them can touch it on its best days.

Part of this schizophrenia is due to Who’s jerky, unpredictable behavior offscreen. Despite having two or three lead actors (the Doctor and his Companions), the show has had three Doctors and seven Companions (counting Mickey and River) in seven years. It’s also had two main showrunners and underwent a drastic remake of the production staff, and consequently the overall look of the show, between seasons 4 and 5. Things have settled down considerably under Steven Moffat, but viewers of the early seasons will have many changes to digest. However, it’s such a fantastic show—the dialogue is always strong, and while the stories may strain belief, the actors are almost always on point—that I’m more than willing to overlook its flaws.

4. I have no idea what it’s like to work inside a real police station, but thanks to The Wire, it feels like I do. Never has there been such a detailed take on the difficulties, dangers and bureaucratic infighting inherent in police work, and never has there been such a comprehensive portrait of a city’s criminal underworld. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it isn’t populated by actors playing parts, but by honest-to-God people doing what they do. They’re that good.

Now, The Wire is a harsh mistress. There’s little explanation in the premiere for the confusing sub-dialects spoken by both police and criminals; you have to figure out things like “product”, “narc” and “Crown Vic” on your own. And the majority of Season 1 is basically setting the stage for seasons to come. But it builds and builds on itself like no other television program. Later seasons are so much richer for having taken the time to develop characters and relationships and history. The show is no longer a collection of performances, but a living entity unto itself. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort required—this is not a show for passive viewing—it’s incredibly rewarding. 

3. The only anime on this list, Ghost in the Shell is a touching, sometimes despairing, always postmodern view of the human condition. It has special relevance to me because everyone in the show is a cyborg, essentially, but there’s plenty here for anyone. The animation is beautiful, the plots are labyrinthine and exquisite, and the blend of action, philosophy and whimsy—especially in the case of the Tachikomas—is tough to beat. The far-future, post-WWIII-yet-still-getting-by world, reminiscent of Akira in style if not content, is also a huge plus.

I seem to be listing greatness first and flaws second in this format, and Ghost in the Shell does have the latter. There were times when I felt like the show’s plotting or premises were resting on Japanese cultural assumptions that I didn’t share and consequently struggled to understand. The plots can be too hard to follow at times (rare is the time when I complain of that) and there’s not as much development of minor characters as you might see elsewhere. But for pure visuals, story, style and philosophy, Ghost in the Shell is tough to beat. It’s bursting with ideas, even if it can’t always express them clearly, and I do love that. 

2. Before this current season is over, Breaking Bad may very well claw its way into the top spot on this list. Never in television has there ever been such a dominant, compelling performance from a lead actor as Bryan Cranston’s Walter White—and it’s lasted four and a half seasons with no signs of slowing down! Never has there been such a transformation of one character over the run of a show! Although they’re often overshadowed by Cranston’s greatness, there is scarcely a weak link on the show’s amazingly solid recurring cast. Almost nobody feels like an afterthought. The directing, settings and set design are consistently tremendous as well, including showrunner Vince Gilligan’s signature “point-of-view-from-someplace-weird” shots. Notable examples have included the back of a microwave, inside an air vent, underneath a floor covered in blood and staring up from the bottom of a toilet.

This show has everything—great characters, innovative directing, a distinctive visual look, incredible character development over time, incredible continuity and realism, the ability to just capture the viewer and draw them into the story. From the very start to the present day, it’s been fantastic television. My only regret is that the story will eventually end. 

1. BSG, as it’s affectionately known, is the best science-fiction drama I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen most of the great ones). I fell in love after the first episode, the exhausting “33”, and never looked back. BSG has a distinctive atmosphere, which pervades the show like none other. Doubt. Fear.  Terror that fades to a dull gray core of resignation. Hope. Inspiration. Love. The challenges of living on the same tin can of a ship with the same people for God knows how long. BSG is able to sustain its incredible atmosphere through great sets and good-looking CGI, through innovative directing that gives every place its own distinctive look and heightens every emotional moment, of which there are so many.

The last, as it has been so often, is the characters. Like Breaking Bad and The Wire, you’d swear that the actors and actresses were just being filmed going about their lives. And what a group of people! The depth of this cast is rivaled only by The Wire, but the variety of people within it tops even Lost. Lee. Commander Adama. The incomparable Starbuck. Felix Gaeta, Dee, all of the Cylon cast and Gaius frakking Baltar are just tremendous. This show won out over Breaking Bad because like Doctor Who, it makes the viewer think. The uncertainties, the relationships between characters and what they might become, the fabulous grandeur of the plot and its slow expansion over four seasons… these inspire endless speculation and conjecture and controversy. Yes, there are some plot twists that made me throw verbal brickbats at the screen; yes, it can be frustrating and it doesn’t explain things and on and on. But that gets my brain working like nothing else, going why the hell did they do that? You can’t borrow, buy or steal a feeling like that. That’s why BSG heads my list.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

My Top 11 TV Shows I've Ever Seen (6-11)

Editor's Note: This is Andy Tisdel, proprietor of Tisdel's Tirades, talking. This post probably has nothing to do with FEMA Corps, and does not reflect the opinions of a majority of FEMA Corps Team Summit 5; it is nothing more or less than an ordinary blog post. It's also been sitting around on my computer for several months, and it's far past time to release it into the wild.

11. I’m going to start out this list with some candy. Top Shot is, by my estimation, the sweetest, most delicious reality show I’ve ever seen (not that I’ve seen many). It’s like basically any other skills-based elimination competition, except with a mind-exploding amount of weaponry. Pistols. Rifles. Shotguns. Machine guns. Sniper rifles. Knives. Atlatls. A freaking cannon. There’s not a whole lot to the show itself--yeah, there are interesting people and people you root for, but the airtime they devote to rivalries and in-house fighting is just so much wasted space--but who even cares? The meat of the show is in the unbelievable shots that everyone is required to make. The show prizes versatility and adaptation to different weapons and conditions, and it’s really fun to watch everyone adapting (or not). And seriously, the things they’re required to do look both incredibly fun and absolutely impossible. 

10. The what-might-have-been of nerds and cosplayers everywhere. I loved it, during its half-a-season run, for its strong characters, excellent dialogue and superb universe-building. Firefly is a far-future space Western with a dark, morbid underside. Creator Joss Whedon loved taking classic Western plots—cattle rustlers, the gunslinger riding into a small town, the heist off a moving train—and putting a sci-fi spin on them. It works pretty well for the most part, but the best of the show (as with most of these shows) is in its characters. Firefly would’ve ranked higher, but this is a tough list; I downgraded it for a limited runtime and the nagging sense that it didn’t quite figure itself out until the show was almost over. Nerds everywhere wish it had.

9. File this one next to Firefly under “what-might-have-been”. Lost was by far the most infuriating show on this list. After two solid seasons of character development and tantalizing plotlines, it veered off the rails in early Season 3 and never quite recovered. At some point in the S5 series finale when Juliet was hitting a nuclear bomb with a rock to make it blow up so that the characters could all go thirty years in their future, I just thought “What on God’s earth is going on here?" Lost had plenty of strengths as well, though. Sawyer, Sayid, Ben, Hurley, Desmond, Locke and a dozen others were all fantastic characters. The pacing was slow but the directing was innovative, enabling Lost to have a totally different narrative style in its flashbacks and flash-forwards. Even when Lost went batshit crazy, it was generally a well-done batshit crazy. And hey, it got me to stick with it for six seasons; I don’t think any show has ever set such effective hooks to keep its fans coming back week after week, nor inspired such fervent message-board rage. 

8. I’ve never watched zombie movies, so I have no idea if The Walking Dead is subverting clichés or retrofitting them. All I know is that it emotionally draws you into the story like nothing else on TV. Nobody else even approaches the level of genuine pulse-pounding terror that comes from seeing Our Heroes get chased by zombies. Part of it is fantastic makeup and acting on the part of the zombies, part of it is the dead-eyed but terrified acting of the humans, and part is just because the show made me care so much about all of its characters. I don’t know why, but if I could bottle it, I’d make millions. There are genuine-looking relationships and there's snappy dialogue and great scenes aplenty to go along with all the aforementioned good stuff. The Walking Dead is at No. 8 because of a sometimes slow, soap-opera-y second season, but there's much more good than bad here. Definitely an emerging favorite of mine. 

7. Fantasy shows, meet Game of Thrones, one of the best ever. I’ve written before about how the HBO format makes it great, blending down-and-dirty reality with highfalutin’ fantasy. Like most of the other shows on this list, I love its characters; unlike most others, I’m in it largely for the plot. I love to watch the Lannisters and the Starks and everyone else bounce off each other, and there are great-character moments aplenty. (Tyrion, Tywin and Jamie Lannister, I’m looking at all of you.) But watching the overarching movement of the plot, and doing so from the very down-to-earth perspective that you see in the show, is why I really enjoy this one. Game of Thrones excels at world-building, although I would like to see more about how Westeros is connected to the rest of the world. Then again, it was already doing quite a bit; the show had a busy second season, developing characters in unusual ways while juggling several wars, a lengthy Daenerys subplot and unspeakable horrors coming out of the North. I’m not convinced that it succeeded with everything, but I love the ambition.

6. This is basically a review of The West Wing’s first four seasons, because I have not seen the last three. As I understand it, they were produced by a different showrunner and were essentially a different show with the same characters. Aaron Sorkin’s four-year effort was a wonderful look inside what the White House might be, filled with a lot of mundane business livened up by people I enjoyed watching go about their business. The West Wing could be a tear-jerker and it could make you laugh helplessly, which is what you get when there’s a master of dialogue writing the script and good actors acting it out.

There are plenty of things to ding the show for. The West Wing tended to go off-message during the first and second seasons, as well as early in the fourth; instead of being an entertaining TV show, it pontificated on the problems of a liberal Democratic administration. My favorite (read: least favorite) of these was the narcissistic fourth-season stint where the staff wondered if President Bartlett was simply too intelligent to reach average voters around the country. And for much of Season 1 it felt as though the show was still trying to find its groove. Late Season 2 through most of Season 4, however, can stand with anything else ever put on television.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Office Work and Treasure Hunts: Another Week in the Rockaways

This is your humble chronicler's weekly report from the Rockaways, where Summit 5 has taken up residence on behalf of the FEMA folks that are in charge of Queens: 

The team remains split up into its component parts. Katrina and John are out with Neighborhood Task Force Initiative (will explain that soon) teams, basically performing normal CR work and getting Katrina unholy hyped up with caffeine (apparently her Reservists like to keep her jitterbugging). Shingirai, Chelsea, Joe and Malinda have been installed in a FEMA trailer, doing IA work, at least some of which involves looking for rental properties (I did not do much research for this post) and making calls. Tiffany and I are still ensconced in our own FEMA trailer, working for the Planning department. The idea is that the NTFI teams have spent the past few months embedded in their specific communities, so they know the area really well. Our mission is to figure out how to use them to help out with FEMA's long-term recovery effort in the Rockaways. 

To that end, we've been making lots of plans but not using them, at least not yet. I created and my bosses have refined a "matrix" of current problems in the Rockaways, based on the NTFI teams' reports, and Tiffany and Ray (our co-worker) made a giant database of virtually every important contact in the Rockaways. Local governmental figures, religious leaders, community leaders, heads of voluntary organizations, we've got 'em all. The problem is figuring out what the Joint Field Office wants us to do with 'em, which is still in the works. 

That's the work-related news from Lake Woebegon. Off work, we survived Giant Snowstorm #2, dubbed "Nemo" by the Weather Channel (which is a cop-out of a name, by the way), without major incident. We had an awesome week of PT; first an impromptu zumba class on Monday (which resulted in everyone doing the Cotton Eye Joe dance in a hotel staircase landing with random strangers wandering through) and then I finally, finally, finally got to do my treasure hunt! And since I am the kingpin of this blog, you get to hear me brag allll about it. 

I'd been waiting to do this thing for weeks. Here's the plan: Split our eight-person team up into two sub-teams. Each one has five clues to find and solve, each one of which will lead to the next clue. One team runs around outside and does calisthenics, one scampers around inside the hotel and does push-ups, sit-ups and so on. Once you've found all the clues, the last one instructs you to find the other team's PT coordinator, steal their ID badge and run and touch our van, Hildegaard. First team to do that wins a get-out-of-jail-free card for each member: one free pass from any chore they choose. 

After waiting weeks for the proper time to do it--early afternoon, no precipitation, not too cold, everybody there--I finally got my chance on Tuesday, when we went to the JFO for tech support and headed home early. Fellow PT coordinator Joe and I hid the clues around the hotel and around the neighborhood (which included press-ganging the hotel front desk lady into participation) and led our teams into battle! (We both knew the answers to our respective clue-sets, but were honor-bound to give hints at most.) After a lot of running around like crazy and solving clues and doing exercises, my downfall came fast and hard (literally). My team had been just a little slower to get their clues, you see. While they were doing the final physical exercise in a stairwell, John Q. Dillinger burst out of nowhere, hit me with a door, snatched my badge and disappeared down the stairs. I gave a spirited chase, but was too late to prevent victory. 

Much more important than winning or losing, though, was this: everyone had an excellent time AND got some exercise AND enjoyed PT for the second time in forever. We've got a round of yoga dialed up for this week, and Katrina's agreed to lead a belly-dancing class. I don't see any way that this won't be hilarious (mostly watching the boys try and do it). Will post things throughout the week as per usual!

Below are the locations and clues, if anyone's interested. 

Inside Team
1: Complete a fairly mundane bit of doggerel by rhyming the next location with "flyers", "criers" and "spry...ers". (Answer: under the dryers.)
2: Solve a word search, then run to that place. (Answer: EZPass building next door.)
3: Answer several team trivia questions, then rearrange highlighted letters to spell out FRONT DESK. 
4: More unscrambling letters; this time ELEVATOR MIRROR.
5: A final round of trivia questions, both team-related (What is TL Chelsea's middle name?) and not (Complete this phrase: I R A N-Contra scandal) spelling out GENERATOR OUT BACK. 

Outside Team
Not sure of the order, because I was inside. The types of clues were the same, but the locations were not: the Babies 'R Us building a few blocks over, the baseball field in a nearby park, the creepy rabbit statue in the same park, Hildegaard and the elevator roof. (Have I mentioned I love making treasure hunts?)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

In Which I Curse A Lot

Editor's Note: This is Andy Tisdel, proprietor of Tisdel's Tirades, talking. This post probably has nothing to do with FEMA Corps, and does not reflect the opinions of a majority of FEMA Corps Team Summit 5; it is nothing more or less than an ordinary blog post.

I have a thing about swear words, and I suppose about words in general: they don’t mean a whole heck of a lot, really. There’s nothing intrinsically shocking about the word fuck; we’re just used to it being a bad word, so we use it like a bludgeon. This fucking guy. Fuck him. Fuck his life. But the thing is, while the meaning of ‘fuck’ lends it some of its value, part of the power of a cuss is the minor taboo you break when you use it. It lends strength to the emotion you’re trying to get across. Use a 'dirty word' too often and you devalue it of its power. I had a housemate once who must have dropped a cuss once in every ten or fifteen words on average; she never seemed to understand that the words had become no longer shocking, but commonplace and dull, when they exited her mouth. I believe in conserving one’s cusses for the proper occasion for maximum effect. Let me put it this way: there are many times when curses will not do, but there are some times where no other word will do.

That whole long introductory mindset is kind of how I feel about the overuse and abuse of superlatives. They’re tossed around so frequently in this culture that they, too, cease to impress. Great, excellent, amazing, awesome, fantastic, wonderful, superlative, glorious, triumphant, overpowering, magnificent. They’re applied to the most trivial accomplishments, tossed around in everyday conversation where ‘good’ or ‘average’ should be—and I’m as guilty of this as anyone. In the world of NFL journalism, calling someone a ‘star’ used to denote exceptional play. Now there are so many so-called ‘superstars’ in the NFL cosmos that the whole cluster will surely explode within a few hundred million years. (On the bright side, so to speak, the elements they release will surely populate a whole new generation.) The unique meanings of each superlative are also sanded down over time, interchanged until they’re indistinguishable from each other. When I say amazing, I mean something that does amaze me. Awesome is worthy of awe, fantastic like a fantasy, wonderful full of wonder, excellent truly excelling. It’s a less fun and less interesting language, to say nothing of conversations, when those are swapped out for one another without a thought.

These words are essentially shortcuts. They have an agreed-upon definition, bland and pasty like so much linguistic oatmeal, and you can use any one of them and evoke basically the same emotion. There's no passion, no meaning behind them. And superlatives are far from the only offenders; clichéd phrases follow a similar path, as does bloodless, sanitized corporate-speak ("I want to have a discussion about how our new initiative is going to impact the situation with our resources"). All of these sources lack authenticity. They lack originality and clarity of expression. One might even argue that they are nearly devoid of deeper meaning; instead of standing in for concepts, they are vehicles by which we can avoid thinking about the deeper issues that they raise. 

This is the paradox I always run into with language. I believe that words don’t have intrinsic meanings to them; they’re just sounds or collections of letters that follow certain rules and that we’ve agreed represent particular ideas or symbols in the real world. It’s the concepts behind the words that are really important, which is why I have a certain impatience with sanitized language—we all know what you mean, it doesn’t matter which words you’re using!—and attempt to describe ideas and experiences with the words that I feel fit the best. It’s all about trying to get across the underlying concepts. 

But I do care about those words, because each is a highly specialized tool that comes with its own unique meanings and connotations. It’s the lightning and thelightning bug, as Mark Twain said. There are those times where no other word will do. This fucking fucker's fucked. But clichés and undeserved praise and inoffensive blither are part of our everyday language, so what the hell do you do with them? Throw them out? Too simple. Just mean them. Own your words, as one sports journalist put it. Counter meaninglessness with authenticity. Put yourself into what you say, because guess what? Your words define you. It's up to you to define them. Use crazy insults. Play with your language. Avoid throwaway phrases or sentences. For fuck's sake, let the things that come out of your mouth mean something. If nothing else, your conversations will get considerably livelier. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Biased Article Is A Lousy Article

Editor's Note: This is Andy Tisdel, proprietor of Tisdel's Tirades, talking. This post probably has nothing to do with FEMA Corps, and does not reflect the opinions of a majority of FEMA Corps Team Summit 5; it is nothing more or less than an ordinary blog post.
What does it mean to say that something is ‘the best American science writing’?

Should one judge every piece of writing on pure aesthetics and writing skill? On the pure ability of the writer to communicate an unknown topic to a popular audience in a novel, interesting fashion? Or should these two traits be coupled with pure journalistic ability, the presentation of a complex and contentious issue in a way that is fair, not to both sides, but to the issue itself?

If you believe that last element should be a crucial part of any determination of ‘best’, then your name is clearly not Michio Kaku, this year’s editor of The Best American Science Writing 2012. Nor is it Jeff Goodell, author of the blazingly anti-nuclear Rolling Stone article “The Fire Next Time”, which describes the American nuclear industry as a fiscal hole in the ground and a gigantic disaster waiting to happen. Kaku put Goodell’s diatribe into the aforementioned compendium. This does not sit well with me.

My disapproval, of course, is irrelevant to Mr. Kaku. I own the book, so from a publisher’s standpoint, it really doesn’t matter what I think of it. And it’s also true that the Best American practice of getting a new guest editor every year allows for constant and healthy turnover in the articles selected. Kaku’s tastes are not those of the 2011 editor, nor will they mirror those of the 2013 editor, and that’s perfectly fine.

Having said all that, I still take issue with the inclusion of a flagrantly one-sided description of a complicated issue in a collection of the best anything, unless it be polemics. Goodell does a superb job excoriating the industry’s many flaws, of which there are plenty to go around. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is widely perceived as toothless and in the hip pocket of the industry that funds it, and Goodell doesn’t spare the rod in his analysis. But in an article with six interviews, the author also doesn’t spare so much as a sentence for a defender of the industry. No current NRC commissioners, no power company or nuclear plant executives, no nuclear energy lobbyists or members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future are interviewed. There’s not even a halfhearted attempt to be fair to the issue.

Goodell’s writing drips with disdain for any positive information about nuclear power. The NRC’s oversight is “lax”, “haphazard” and “safety-last”, its relationship with the injury “cozy” and “an unholy alliance”, and the reactors themselves are described as “aging” three times and “crumbling” once. But here’s a problem even worse than blatant bias: Goodell’s information is at best incomplete and at worst full of holes. ,For example: when the first generation of nuclear plants was built, no one knew how long they would last. Goodell writes “Nuclear reactors were built to last only forty years,” but that’s simply wrong; the forty-year restriction was for political reasons, not technical ones. As NRC spokesman Scott Burnell told me in 2010, “the 40-year original term of a license was set by Congress more for financial and antitrust considerations then it was for any technical basis.” There’s no technical reason why the NRC shouldn’t have granted the 63 extensions that Goodell decries; reactors are no less safe at 41 than they are at 39. All Goodell had to do to find this out was interview a NRC spokesperson, but apparently he did not.

In addition to occasionally being flat wrong, Goodell's information is also woefully incomplete. To hear him tell it, nuclear reactors are just one quick blackout away from Fukushima II. He tells the presumably horrified reader how 93 U.S. reactors have backup batteries that can last just four hours, while only 11 can last eight hours, and leaves it to our inference that catastrophe will follow. He does not, however, mention that U.S. reactors have emergency backup generators in addition to the batteries! Nor does he mention emergency shutdown systems that allow for near-instantaneous shutdown of the reactor core, or the multiple systems of carrying excess heat away from the plant! “There is no way you’ll have a single failure of any component or system that will jeopardize your ability to cool the plant down. Even cutting off the power”, Tom Kauffman told me in 2010. Kauffman is a spokesman for a pro-industry lobbying group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, so of course he’s biased. But if you’re going to have one side of an issue overwhelmingly represented, the way Goodell did, it’s at least worth considering the counterarguments of the other side. 

Now, it’s perfectly within Goodell’s rights to do shoddy, biased research, and it’s perfectly within the purview of Rolling Stone’s editors to greenlight such an article. It’s not as though they have a reputation for unbiased reporting, nor is such reporting what people expect from that publication. It’s just disappointing to see that Kaku’s definition of the “best American science writing” includes an article that simply isn’t fair to the issue at hand. Instead, he chose an article that overwhelmingly supported his point of view, judging by his introduction to the book.

The kicker is, it’s not as if Goodell isn’t right; the industry has a terrible public image, the NRC is not exactly a harsh regulatory body, and there are plenty of flaws for it to regulate (most of which Goodell details: spent fuel pools in need of better cooling, well-publicized near-accidents at nuclear plants, plants on fault lines, etc). There are plenty of problems with the nuclear industry, but any serious critique of the industry should take its positives into account along with its flaws. Don’t give equal time to each side if the sides don’t merit equal time, but be fair to the issue.  It’s too bad Kaku didn’t put that on his list of values.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Musings About Culture and Being a Fan

Editor's Note: This is Andy Tisdel, proprietor of Tisdel's Tirades, talking. This post probably has nothing to do with FEMA Corps, and does not reflect the opinions of a majority of FEMA Corps Team Summit 5; it is nothing more or less than an ordinary blog post.
Can we get rid of the idea, once and for all, that there is some kind of master list of cultural touchstones (in movies, literature, music, television, anything else you'd care to name) that everyone should immerse themselves in? And can we boot the equally stupid implication that if you haven't been dunking your heads in the same basin of presumable ecstasy that everybody else has, you've clearly been wasting your time?
Above: something that came up when I Googled "vile soup". I have no idea what's in it.
 Yes, that's deliberately overstated. I'd like to introduce the idea the way it comes across first, then backtrack and explain where it comes from. Let's commence with the backtrack and examination.
There's nothing wrong with exposing people to bits of the cultural galaxy that you've been immersed in. We all do it all the time. 'Hey, have you heard this song, watched this video, seen this movie? OMG! You totally have to! It's soooo gooood!' The part that bugs me is when somebody mixes in a spoonful of mock outrage with the recommendation. 'How on earth could you grow up without watching Aladdin? Did you even have a childhood?' That last sentence, which comes up quite a bit, is as good as a declarative statement by the speaker: 'I believe that there is a certain set of cultural bits that everyone should be exposed to, and the fact that you haven't been exposed to these constitutes a flaw that must be cured as soon as possible'. 
In jest or sincere, the implications are still really creepy. For me, it starts out with the implication that there's some kind of objective ranking of cultural bits. There's not, and it's not news, and there's really no point in listing all the reasons why (people are different, and there's no agreed-upon value for "good"). The best you can do is a pile of statistics, Rotten Tomatoes-style, but even that only gives you what the members of a culture (or all cultures, or any middle ground) think of a bit, not an absolute value that quantifies the bit. Critics can place a bit among its companion bits better than the rest of us can, but they can't tell us that something is objectively good, or objectively better or worse than similar movies, any more than I can. Everything's about the subject, which makes sense, since all of this is art.

No objective good means there's no true list of best bits, but what about making a list of cultural bits that are most important? Same problem. Important to whom, and in what ways? Can you really nail down a short list of bits that are more vital than any other, without defining a topic or otherwise delineating what you’re talking about from the great mass of culture? I don’t think you can. I don’t think anybody really can. There is so much out there to explore, and so much of it is subjectively awesome (depending on your viewpoint). Saying that there are these five or six things that everyone should see, and thereby concluding that the rest are at best secondary and at worst irrelevant, seems comically arrogant.

Of course, questions of subjectivity and objectivity tend to be submerged in debates like this in a sea of fandom, which is something I truly don’t understand. There are many, many cultural bits that I happen to love, and that I recommend to friends and strangers at every opportunity. But I don’t say they’re the best thing in the world; I say they’re really, really good. I don’t understand the rush to lose yourself in fictional characters, to care about their needs and desires and flaws with a passion that approaches violence. Do I enjoy the story and acting and characterization and a thousand other aspects of a show like Breaking Bad? Hell, yes. Do I spend hours debating motivation and morality with fellow fans of the show? Hell, yes. Would I consider temporarily abandoning my own identity by actually taking on the appearance or identity of one of those characters, i.e. cosplaying? Should I engage with them on a primarily emotional level, as cosplayers do, instead of a primarily reasoning one? That just isn’t for me. At the end of the day, they're just characters; you can make your own if you like, which is in my opinion a better use of your time.

Deep emotional involvement with characters (not even necessarily the broad sweep of a show, but individual characters) is where obsessive fandom—covering your walls with posters, breathlessly awaiting each new episode, spending endless hours on Internet chat rooms—comes from. To me, you can be a fan—enjoy and engage with and comment on a cultural bit—without descending into fandom—composing increasingly excessive odes to said bit. And by the way, fandom doesn’t have to be positive; you can put just as much passion and time and energy into denouncing Twilight or Nickelback (two favorite Internet punching bags) as you could affirming Disney or Doctor Who (two favorite Internet snuggle-buddies). 

Speaking of Twilight or Fifty Shades of Gray or any other piece of pop culture widely panned as garbage, here's one more disturbing idea that's out there: the notion that the cultural bits that you enjoy somehow define you as a person. I get that reading into someone's tastes and favorite bits can tell you things about that person; I'm not arguing against that. But to argue as some do that watching Twilight or listening to Justin Bieber means you have poor taste or are being aggressively vapid or are just plain stupid... I don't see it. Your bits can tell other people about you, but they can mislead as easily as not, and they certainly do not define you.

Cultural relativism, to steal from someone wiser than I am, is about examining and appreciating the nuances of other cultures without losing the set of moral values that came with your own. That's for national and ethnic definitions of culture. In this case, you might say that accepting relativity in pop culture is about accepting subjectivity, being willing to engage with new cultural bits that you come in contact with, without losing your personal sense of what's good and what's not. Again, this isn't difficult; we do it every day. It's giving up the pretentiousness inherent in talking up your particular culture at the expense of everyone else's that's the trick.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Our Interview With Joe "Cornflake" Light, Part III! (The Story of the Chinatown Watch)

Editor's note: Because Mr. Light had a long interview and talks ridiculously fast--during the 23-odd minutes, an average of 2.6 words were said every second, a figure which includes "dead time"--we're splitting it up into three parts, which will air Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday of this week. It also means that each of these parts will be rather long for this blog, but hey, at least you don't have to listen to me talk.

Joe Light: Once upon a time, there was a homeless Cornflake, who desperately wanted a Chinatown watch, ‘cause the first time he came to New York City he spent all his money before he got there and did not have the opportunity to buy one. So one day, he made his way into the city and walked into Chinatown, and within the first block he was propositioned like a man who wanted to know if he wanted a Rolex. He responded positively and was walked a short distance to a very shady-looking streetcorner, where another man showed me a list of watches. And, ah—

Andy Tisdel: We’re changing tenses now.

JL: Showed him a list of watches and asked him which one he would want (much laughter), and he responded “I like gold. I want something gold.” And they produced the world’s most gaudy-looking, ginormous, fake gold Rolex. They wanted fifty bucks, and I talked them down from it. They wanted about two hundred fifty dollars, but I’m pretty good at haggling. At the time, I was really just buying it as a souvenir. I’m never going to wear it anyway. Plus it’s fake, and I mean, if I wore it it might break, and I just wanted a Chinatown Rolex for a memory. And then I got back to the ship that we were living on at the time, and I was showing it to my roommates and they were all noticing how thuggish it looked, and I started to think the same thing. And I thought, there were other watches on that list he showed me, that pictogram or whatever you would call it, that looked very nice. And, ah, that I could actually wear it if I could buy one, but I didn’t want to spend another fifty dollars. So I was headed to Chinatown a couple of weeks later, and I decided to bring the watch with me and see if I could trade it. And, uh… is [the camera] off?

AT: Nah. I just wanted to check it.

JL: So I decided to trade it, and I made a lot of Chinese people very unhappy with me in the process. I had to talk to four different people, all of which I think—I couldn’t tell if they were working together, or if they were just competing for my business. And when three of them realized that I didn’t want to buy a watch, I wanted to trade one I’d already bought from them for another one, they just got mad. So then I was like—he was like, I can give you an extra ten bucks or something like that for this watch, plus the new one, and the first three people didn’t go for that, so I kinda just gave up and started walking back—HE gave up and started walking back towards the 6 train, and a completely different one chased him down, thrust the watch he wanted into his hands, took ten dollars and the other watch and ran away. (more laughs) And he was pretty happy about that… *pauses to think* …Let’s see. Other fun experiences I’ve had in New York.

AT: Or anywhere.

JL: Well, last week I went to a Broadway play with some friends from my team, my team leader and another Corps Member. And I was pretty excited. I’d been to one Broadway play before, but it wasn’t what I wanted and with really crappy seats and I really wanted to see Wicked! So I treated myself to some front-row seats and my colleagues also got tickets, and… We decided to leave about five hours prior to the showing and got lost in Brooklyn for the first of those five hours we were supposed to leave, so that took away our lead time by a good chunk. And then we looked at the bus times, and we waited for the bus, and when it got there it skipped our stop. And we were like, well, maybe he didn’t see us. It was an express bus, which means it doesn’t make very many stops, and therefore instead of stopping every ten minutes like the regular bus system, it comes around every hour. So we waited outside in the cold for an hour for it to come ‘round again, and it skipped us again! (laughter) Right as it skipped us I chased it, I chased it down the street, and right as I chased it this old guy on a bike—he was reading a newspaper or something like that—was like “Did you want to get on that bus?” And I was like “Yes! Why am I chasing it?!” “Well, that bus doesn’t stop here on weekends. It stops at the one down by the mall, in front of the movie theater." A mile away. And one of the girls that went with us had some pretty vicious asthma, and so obviously sprinting a mile to the mall to get on that bus was not really realistic, but I did it and they walked it. And I was about a block away when the bus stopped, and I was just freakin’ out, screaming, flailing my arms, and I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got there because everyone else was way behind me, so I called one of my roommates. At this point we were two hours—no, three hours—into the five hours we were supposed to be there. Two hours until showtime. So we were freaking out, and we had a lot of money invested in the show, and we couldn’t even get into Manhattan. We didn’t know what we were going to do. I knew there was a—from my recent travels, I knew there was a subway station right next to Citi Field, and if I could just get a ride there, we could hop on in and be in Manhattan in half an hour. So I grabbed one of our roommates, he grabbed a van, showed up, picked us up, dropped us off at the subway, we took off towards Manhattan and, ah, there was construction on that subway, so without warning it took off and headed in the opposite direction! So we had to get off, find another one headed back into the city, get on that and finally got to our showing an hour or so early.

AT: And was it worth all the hassle?

JL: It was. I got spit on by a Broadway actor. It was fantastic. It tasted like glory. Zest. Talent. What else…

AT: Well, it’s now like twenty-three minutes in.

JL: So seven minutes to go… hmm..

AT: No! The last interview was fifteen minutes. I don’t need that.

JL: I’ll sing Free Bird, how about that. HMMMMM

AT: Any final thoughts on life, on FEMA Corps, on team life, on the penny under your butt?

JL: Aaaaahhhh! My penny! Oh, yeah. Pick up change wherever you find it. It’s all over the place in disaster zones. And we don’t get a lot of money, so I suggest that. Also, read Andy’s blog, it’s fantastic. (laughter)

AT: Well if they read this the whole way through, they probably don’t need the enticement.

JL: Continue reading his blog. It’s fantastic. [Editor’s note: he actually said these things; this is not a thinly disguised advertisement, I swear.]

AT: Thank you. Thank you. You flatter me, sir.

JL: Also, I bro-hugged Obama. (laughter) Actually, no. He just sorta side-hugged me.

AT: Did he, though? ‘Cause you were the first one in the queue.

JL: Well, he shook my hand [demonstrates] and the whole time he was talking to me, he had ahold of my hand. And I was like, “This is a really long handshake! But there’s nobody else in the world I’d rather have a long handshake with,” and he was touching my shoulder and then he kind of pulled me around like this [demonstrates more], so I’m counting it as a side-hug.

AT: Okay.

JL: And it was like, whoa. Presidential boobery.

AT: You know, this is going to be a straight transcript.

JL: Nooooo!!

AT: Well thank you for sitting down with me!