Friday, April 26, 2013

Grow Up: There's No Conspiracy In Boston

In the immediate aftermath of the bombings in Boston last week, once initial shock wore off, and after my wife confirmed that her mother, who lives three blocks from the finish line, was okay (as it turned out, she was 100 yards from the first explosion but was unharmed), I joined the rest of America in wondering who could have done such a terrible thing, and why.

I admit, my first instinct was that it was some far-right gun nut, mainly because of the timing: the toothless background check bill had just been voted down, and the attack happened on Tax Day and Patriots' Day -- three different things freighted with great meaning to libertarians all coming together at once.

I was not the only one to jump to that conclusion, but it was hardly the only theory out there. Some people thought it obviously another Al Qaeda attack, and started combing photos from the blast site for brown faces. Alex Jones and the InfoWars crowd immediately -- like immediately, the day of the bombing -- confidently predicted that The Government had done the bombing and would frame a right-winger for the crime in an effort to gin up support for giving the TSA dominion over sporting events, or something.

Now that one of the perpetrators is in custody and the other is in the morgue, it seems increasingly clear that their uncle's application of Occam's Razor -- the simplest explanation is usually the truest -- to the puzzle was correct: they were just a couple of losers. Or at least, the older brother, Tamerlan, was a loser, and he dragged his baby brother, seven highly impressionable years younger, into a pointless act of violence that ended one of their lives and has ruined the other (to say nothing of the 250+ innocent people killed or maimed by their actions).

Like I said, my first guess was that the bombings were done by right-wingers to prove some kind of a point about gun control. "If the crazies can't get a gun, they'll use a bomb," as the most cursory glance at any online gun-control debate will tell you, and paired with the anniversaries of the Waco siege and the Oklahoma City bombing and Tax Day, it seemed to make the most sense that someone was trying to prove that very sentiment. But when it turned out just to be an unbalanced, unaffiliated wacko and his worshipful little brother, I was more than happy to be wrong. The gun control debate, and every other political argument for that matter, is way too tense already, and dropping terrorism into it would only make things worse.

I'm relieved that it appears to have been just two assholes, that we don't need to go invade another country or, shudder, put the TSA in charge of sporting events. I am happy to admit I was wrong if it means relations between the left and right in this country are not about to ratchet up to an even more poisonous, mutually distrustful level than they're already at.

These assholes
But it seems that some people are disappointed that it's just a couple of jagoffs, because it's harder to fit them into their theories about how the bombings underline how right they are about whatever their pet issue is. The people who oppose immigration reform saw the Russian-born Tsarnaevs as proof that we should close the borders; the people who oppose gun control took evident delight in suggesting that the people of Boston probably wished they were armed while Dzokhar was on the loose; the people in favor of gun control crowed that the NRA had made it easier for them to arm themselves and pull off the bombing; and the conspiracy crowd jumped immediately to the conclusion that this was an inside job.

It's easy to make fun of the people who took one look at this situation and saw Government Power Grab written all over it. (The best roundup of Boston bombing conspiracies I've found is right here.) The rhetorical knife-fights in the comments on the related articles on InfoWars are particularly interesting/amusing/depressing. Some people see conspiracy, nefarious purposes, mind control, "False Flags" and above all the maddening apathy/stupidity of the masses that enables it all, in nearly everything that happens anywhere. In this case it appears that they started from the assumption that the government did it and then started working backward from that, looking for evidence to support that theory even after it turned out that these two dipshits are on video putting the bombs in place and didn't have any help from anyone. (They didn't even have a getaway plan.) It's tempting to wonder what goes through these people's minds to make them so distrustful-- are they lonely? Disenfranchised? Unbalanced? Then I remember that it wasn't so long ago that I thought the same way.

Something about this bombing doesn't seem right!
I recently found, in a box of old books I hadn't seen in forever, a book called "50 Greatest Conspiracies," with short chapters on the faked moon landing, the JFK assassination, the various CIA plots to kill Castro, etcetera times fifty. I bought, read, and re-read it eagerly sometime in the late '90s.  I remember in the early days of this here World Wide Web, when I got my first job in the online editorial business, late '95 I believe it was, finding a long document on some kind of newsgroup or something called "The Gemstone File" that presented a breathless unified theory of pretty much every awful thing that happened in the 20th century. While most of the details have left me, I dimly recall it culminating in Aristotle Onassis' being the mastermind of the Kennedy assassination, which he then followed up with the gangster flourish of taking Kennedy's woman.

Even I found that last bit a little farfetched, but I did read the 40 ribbed, perforated, green-striped computer pages that preceded it. Around that time I sought out a documentary about the seige at Waco that pretty convincingly posited that the ATF set the fires that killed all those people. Even as late as 2001, when I started reading online whispers about 7 World Trade Center-- the building that collapsed despite not being hit by anything or ever being on fire -- I admit that I sought out and watched Loose Change and listened to its wild-eyed ideas about an American coup with an open mind, and came away somewhere between skeptical and convinced. I never for a moment believed that there were any weapons in Iraq, and it was face-slappingly obvious to me that the occupation and invasion of that country was done for reasons other than what were presented.

I don't know what's changed in me over the last few years, but I don't see anything more nefarious in the Boston bombings than a couple of peckerwoods acting out like a baby that wants his bottle. It is not a decision that I made, like "conspiracy people are crazy so I would rather not be one" -- it's more like a feeling of dread paranoia that I just don't feel anymore.

Similarly, there are people out there saying that the explosion in West, Texas was the result of some kind of projectile hitting the fertilizer plant. There are people out there saying that the Newtown massacre was either staged (so no kids were killed) or just government sponsored (so the kids were killed, and with Obama's say-so to boot) to gin up support for Obama's gun-control agenda. People were saying we didn't really kill Bin Laden when we killed Bin Laden. And where I might once have seen conspiracy, bad people moving the rest of us around like chess pieces in the service some big bad agenda that most of us won't understand until it's too late, now I just see random, awful events too easily explained for comfort.

So what changed? I have been thinking a lot about this over the last couple of weeks and the best I've come up with is: I grew up. I don't mean that in the "I'm no longer a child so I put away childish things" sense. I don't mean I entered adulthood, where educated people know better than to believe in paranoid fantasies.

I mean that I entered the world of adults, where, turns out, no one is very good at anything, particularly on an institutional level. Though there are loads of competent and talented and motivated individual adults out there, when you get more than three of them together you are dealing with an institution. Having worked in several institutions in a variety of settings at a variety of tasks toward a variety of goals and over time I began to realize that, contrary to what I had been led to believe as a child, adults by and large are (at best) just barely competent. They are not usually particularly good at their jobs, but even if they are, they have appalling communications skills. They do not tend to read for comprehension. A goal agreed and mobilized upon on Monday is as likely as not to be replaced with new orders by Friday. And, most importantly, they can't keep a secret.

I dunno, some guy on a roof?
So when I hear it suggested that The Government slaughtered a bunch of first-graders in their classrooms, or set off a flesh-eating bomb 18 inches from a third-grader, to advance some kind of political agenda, it's not so much that I don't believe that even the darkest recesses of humanity could give such an order -- though it is certainly a stretch -- it's that when you think about how many people would have get in line to carry out that order, execute it perfectly, and then stay quiet about it-- let's just say if I had a chance to bet on the success of such a plot in advance, I wouldn't put a dime on it.

(The easy example to point to would be the 9/11 hijackings, but that attack's success rested squarely on the spectacular institutional failures of the FBI and CIA, which only underscores my point.)

Do I think Dick Cheney is capable, on a moral level, of masterminding the 9/11 attacks? I think Dick Cheney is capable of beating a puppy to death with a 9-iron. Do I think that there are 50 people (minimum) working for the government who worked nights for months to pack the World Trade Center towers with explosives, did so undetected, and then kept quiet about it afterward? I can't believe in any conspiracy that pivots on that detail.

Do I believe Barack Obama is capable of ordering the slaughter of 6-year-olds for a political advantage? No I don't, but again I wouldn't put it past Dick Cheney or Don Rumsfeld. I wouldn't put it past Dick Cheney to eat those kids alive in front of their parents and spit the blood in their faces if he thought it would raise Halliburton's stock a nickel. But do I believe there is a team of triggermen out there somewhere who received that order, killed a bunch of little kids, and then never told anyone about it? No I don't.

So, is there a massive government conspiracy behind the Boston bombings? People are out there suggesting that all that blood all over the place was fake and that the people whose legs were blown off were actors. That this photo proves the advance knowledge and participation of the government in the bombings. Others are saying that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was not actually killed but was taken (naked) into custody. And that the  I'm sorry, call me naive, call me a sheeple (what's the singular form of sheeple? Sheeperson?) but I just can't buy it, because the thing all these plots have in common is they'd have to be carried out by adult human beings who, as I mentioned, are not typically super competent and don't typically get great results working in groups.

We need not look far for a relevant example: both the press coverage and the information coming out of the investigation in Boston have been a comedy of errors. CNN was particularly ridiculous, as The Daily Show best illustrated. But the story keeps changing: did the brothers hold up a 7-11, as was initially reported? No, that was someone else in the area. Did the brothers have a huge arsenal during their shootout with the cops? No, they only had one handgun. Was there another shootout right before the cops took Dzokhar into custody? No, he was just lying in that boat bleeding and the cops (understandably) unloaded on him. Is Zooey Deschanel a suspect? She's not?

Add caption
Some see these inconsistent reports as further proof of a conspiracy, of the government changing the "facts" to fit its trumped-up narrative to frame a couple of innocent patsies (who, let's remember, were caught on videotape committing the crime). Maybe at one time I would have seen it that way too. What I see now is a bunch of different agencies (Watertown local cops, Boston city cops, Massachussetts State Police, FBI, ATF, and god knows who else) doing a typically terrible job of cooperating, sharing information, or listening to each other, followed by the press further mangling the facts in this demented game of telephone. If these fundamentally decent people can't get in line with each other to perform the public service of disseminating information, what hope does a massive, unambiguously evil conspiracy have of coming off without a hitch?

It's certainly upsetting and depressing that these things are happening, but it's slightly less awful to know that these are the acts of random assholes and not large, organized, taxpayer-funded assholes. All it takes is a little faith: faith in the basic incompetence of your fellow man. All I had to do was grow up a little.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Prime Directive Of Parenting

There is something of a baby boom happening in my circle of friends right now, and since I am a mile or two farther down the bumpy road of parenthood -- my son is six years old, divorced, and has a couple of arrests on his rap sheet -- a few of those friends (by which I mean none of them) have asked me if I have any parenting advice. I am in no way a perfect parent, and my ongoing failure to get my boy to eat anything that's not a bread product makes me suspect that I am a bad one, but I do nonetheless have one thing I would share with new parents looking for guidance.

After the joy and anxiety of the first couple of years, when the kid is cute and quiet and pretty much any problem can be solved by whipping out a nipple, things start to change. The kid doesn't want to eat. Or, the kid doesn't want to eat anything but Lucky Charms. Or the kid doesn't want to go to bed at bedtime, or take a bath at bath time, or put his shoes on when it's time to leave, or put his coat on when it's cold, or get into the car seat when it's time to get in the car, or pull his pants down when he has to pee, or point his little pecker at the toilet instead of the floor, or wipe his own butt when he poops, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. (times ).

Worse, they begin to develop language skills, so not only do you have to say "No" 500 times a day, the kid starts to construct surprisingly well-reasoned arguments and counterarguments to make his case. He starts to remember things you said in the past and use them against you. You gradually begin to realize that your baby is now a kid, with a mind of his own and his own set of priorities. And that's when the yelling begins.

So much yelling. I hate the yelling so much, and yet I don't seem to be able to stop myself from doing it because the boy is just relentless when he wants something. The phrase "won't take no for an answer," I am now convinced, was coined by the parent of a 5-year-old.

For the last couple of years, I've been torn between two competing parenting Prime Directives: To Do The Right Thing, and To Keep The Peace. In the beginning, it's easy To Do The Right Thing. They ask for something, you say no, and they shrug and move on.

But as they get older, it gets harder to keep the corrosive influence of the outside world, and worse, other parents, from your little angel. They go places, they see things, they taste things, they want things.  It is your job, as a parent, to deny them those things, which is in direct contravention of Prime Directive #2: To Keep The Peace. Telling a preschooler who's screaming for Honey Nut Cheerios, or screaming to watch one more video on the computer, that they can't have what they want is a terrible strategy To Keep The Peace. And yet, we have To Do The Right Thing.  How do we do both?

I have developed a quick and easy way to steer clear of this conflict, in the form of a unifying Prime Directive that supersedes the other two Prime Directives: Everything Is A Precedent.

Would you rather not spend every evening for the rest of your life arguing over whether your precious child can have a bowl of pretzels right before dinner? Then never, not even once, not even on his birthday, not even if he was chased into the house by wolves, give him a bowl of pretzels right before dinner.

Do you feel that reading a book to your young friend at the dinner table will only slow down an already endless dinner-to-bed process? Do not read the child a book at the dinner table, ever.

Would you prefer not to be pestered to play video games every waking moment of every day until the kid goes off to college/trade school/juvenile detention? Don't buy a video game machine.

It sounds simple, and it is, but that doesn't mean it's easy. More than likely, you and your spouse have fallen into a good cop/bad cop dynamic, which is a nice way of saying one of you is softer than the other. The soft parent will buckle when she (or he, but let's be real, she) hears that the kid is hungry, or if she thinks there is some kind of educational value in what the kid is asking for, or, most insidiously, if she thinks it will get this little pest off her back for 15 minutes. Who cares about a few pretzels before dinner? Why not read him a book if he promises to eat his dinner while we do it? What's the harm in letting him watch two hours of videos on Sunday morning? What's the harm? WHAT'S THE HARM? EVERYTHING IS A PRECEDENT.

The child does not understand "just this once" or "special occasion" or "don't get used to this." He will nod eagerly and say he understands, but it is a lie. In his little mind, if something is okay once, it's okay, full stop. Much like a terrorist or an NRA member, the child deals only in absolutes. There is black, and there is white. There is no gray. If he gets it today, he'll want it tomorrow. It is your responsibility as the grown-up to stay strong and say no! You've got to think about the long term effects of your parenting decisions, and by that I mean the long term effects on you. If YOU make the wrong choice, YOU will have to listen to a child screaming "BUT YOU GAVE ME ONE YESTERDAY!!" or "IT WAS OKAY THAT ONE TIME!!" or "YOU LET ME LAST WEEK!!"

Everything is a precedent. Unless you want to do it every day, SAY NO.

Be strong, my friends. If you need any more parenting advice, you can find me locked in (but probably not using) the bathroom, with toilet paper wadded into my ears.

Friday, April 12, 2013

In Defense of LL Cool J and "Accidental Racist"

This week everyone's all a-flutter about this terrible song by country artist Brad Paisley, "Accidental Racist," in which Paisley tries to explain that even though he wears the Rebel flag, he's got no problem with black people, and that to assume otherwise is a prejudice that he feels is unjust. Like most contemporary country music, it's terrible, syrupy, overproduced, lyrically insipid, creatively bankrupt, and politically clueless.

But what's really got people buzzing is the involvement of LL Cool J, who comes in at the end to rap a little. Unsurprisingly, LL's contribution does little to elevate the material:

Dear Mister White Man, I wish you understood
What the world is really like when you're livin' in the hood
Just because my pants are saggin' doesn't mean I'm up to no good
You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would
Now my chains are gold but I'm still misunderstood
I wasn't there when Sherman's March turned the south into firewood
I want you to get paid but be a slave I never could
Feel like a newfangled Django, dodgin' invisible white hoods
So when I see that white cowboy hat, I'm thinkin' it's not all good
I guess we're both guilty of judgin' the cover not the book
I'd love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air
But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn't here
If you don't judge my do-rag, I won't judge your red flag
If you don't judge my gold chains, I'll forget the iron chains
Can't re-write history baby
The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin'
Quite frankly I'm a black Yankee
but I've been thinkin' about this lately
The past is the past, you feel me
Let bygones be bygones
RIP Robert E. Lee but I've gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean

I listened to this song once, and once, I am quite certain, was enough. While I agree that the relationship between the Mason and Dixon needs some fixin', the song sounds like something from an episode of South Park. The line that really jumps out is when LL says "RIP Robert E. Lee" -- rest in peace, guy who fought to preserve the right to enslave other human beings -- but the whole thing is terrible and unbelievably tone-deaf. What, everyone seems to be asking, was LL Cool J thinking when he got involved with this mess?

A quick look back at LL's long history of baffling career moves might help you to understand. After bursting onto the scene in 1985 at age 17 as one of the first acts signed to Def Jam records, he quickly became rap royalty with the one-two punch of "I Can't Live Without My Radio" and "Rock The Bells," from his first album. He started out as a shouter, yelling his verses at the top of his lungs in his stage uniform of track pants, no shirt, huge gold rope, and Kangol cap. But at some point he must have realized he was scaring women away with that approach, so although his second album featured the classic "I'm Bad," it also featured "I Need Love," which (as far as I know) is the first ever rap love song.

I ask you, faithful reader: is that video or that song any more artistically valid than "Accidental Racist"? I acknowledge that it can't be any worse, but is it any better? It's like comparing Fidel Castro and Raul Castro. His motives seem clear enough: to get more women to come to his shows, and I have no doubt at all that it worked. In fact, I would venture to guess that LL Cool J is probably our greatest living cocksman. Think about it: he'd be super handsome even without the dimples. He's been ripped like Apollo the whole 28 years he's been famous. He's been rich and famous since he was 17. And, starting with "I Need Love," he retooled his whole high-energy stage persona, which consisted mainly of barking and/or growling threats to the listener's personal safety, into that of soft-spoken ladies man, which consisted mainly of whispered threats to the listener's lady parts.
(I was discussing this with a couple of guys at the office this morning, and they were not as convinced as I that LL is such an accomplished swordsman -- at least, not with the fairer sex. They promptly informed me of rumors that he is, shall we say, a Friend Of Dorothy, that he's been busted with at least one transgender prostitute, and that he paid Esquire to kill a story to that effect. I include this information without comment.)
Could anything damage a macho rapper's macho cred more than the decision to put 8 love songs on every album? How about a family sitcom?
Firstly, if you have any doubt about LL's (alleged, by me) ease with the ladies, note the second comment under this video:
Multiply that by every woman in America, subtract half (maybe a third) of the married ones, and we can probably agree that Mr. Cool J is putting up Wilt Chamberlain numbers, and I am not talking about the 100-point game.
Anyway, LL did In The House, a UPN family sitcom that made House of Payne look like All In The Family, for five seasons. Again, that certainly wasn't a worse creative decision than "Accidental Racist," but would you really argue that it was better? What about Halloween H20? Or Deep Blue Sea (that was the one about the mutant sharks)? Deliver Us From Eva?
None of these cinematic abortions, all of which somehow managed to keep LL's enormous natural charisma offscreen, was his worst project. No, that would be his 2009 single "NCIS: No Crew Is Superior," a song he was inspired to write on the set of the CBS crime procedural NCIS. "This song is the musical interpretation of what I felt after meeting with NCIS agents, experienced Marines and Navy SEALs," he told TV Guide. "It represents the collective energy in the room. I was so inspired I wrote the song on set." (Related: how many rappers have given interviews to TV Guide?)
Although I (and I'm guessing you) never heard this song before, I guess the people at CBS liked it, because they gave LL the lead (opposite the Boy Wonder himself, Chris O'Donnell) on an NCIS spinoff, NCIS: Los Angeles, a show that makes Law & Order: Los Angeles look like CSI: Miami.
So look, let's not get too upset because LL Cool J did a terrible verse in an even worse song. LL Cool J has been making terrible creative decisions for at least 20 years. It's what LL Cool J does. You might as well get upset at a bee for buzzing.

Friday, April 5, 2013

LinkedIn Works So Well It Doesn't Work At All

It has been my experience that in terms of professional life, networking is everything. I don't necessarily mean networking like aggressively slipping a business card into the hands of everyone you meet everywhere you go, although I'm sure that helps too.  "It's not what you know, it's who you know" is a little too simple to be true -- you're not going to get a job you're not qualified for just because you know someone -- but if someone is trying to choose between hiring a qualified friend (or acquaintance, or friend of a friend) and a qualified stranger, the stranger is going to lose every time.

I have been almost continuously employed since I was 13, and of the (as best as I can remember) 20 gigs I've held in that time, I never had a single job, ever, that I didn't get at least in part because I knew someone who put a word in or came through with a bribe or had incriminating photos of the right person..

By contrast, when I have looked for jobs through non-nepotistic channels like classified ads, craigslist,, things like that, I have sent out countless resumes to countless companies and never, not even once, zero out of a million times have I ever gotten so much as an acknowledgement that they received my query, much less an interview or a job.

This could be because my resume is unimpressive and I have very little to offer -- believe me, I don't discount the possibility -- but I am able to sleep at night and stay out of the medicine chest by telling myself that all these faceless hiring managers are just hiring people they know, or who someone who was referred by someone who already works there, the same as I got every job I've ever gotten. (It begs the question why does anyone post job listings at all if they're only going to interview people that never see that posting in the first place, but I digress.)

So it seemed to be a godsend for job seekers when LinkedIn came along. As I'm sure no one reading this needs to be told, LinkedIn is an online social network, not unlike Friendster, except it's for professionals to keep tabs on everyone they've worked with in the past so, hopefully, they can hit them up for a job when their life, their savings, and their future inevitably crumbles in their hand like a month-old brownie. Does it sound like I'm nervous?

I have a full-time day job that seems relatively somewhat stable for the moment (and a part-time night job that has robbed me of my hearing, empathy, and capacity for surprise), but this being corporate 21st century America, one can never be too careful. So a few weeks ago I finally started a LinkedIn account and all the people who had invited me to join their LinkedIn networks over the last few years -- invitations I'd ignored because I just wasn't using LinkedIn yet -- spooled out before me in a long list. I confirmed them all, probably 20 or 30, and thought well, it's not much of a network, but it's a start.

Then LinkedIn started showing me the names of people I had worked with in the past but who had not contacted me. Would I like to connect to those people? Sure I would! So I clicked the little blue 'Connect' button beside all those names and thought, well, it's still not much, but we're getting somewhere. Sometime soon, I thought, when I'm not sitting at my cubicle in the center of the office at my current job, I'll really put some time into this and make this website work for me.
I don't think I've laid eyes on 86,000 different
people in my entire life
Not long after that, I started getting the emails. Such-and-so has accepted your invitation! Great! Learn about Whats-his-name, your new connection! Not right now, but okay. These emails started coming fast and furious, like ten a day, and I couldn't help noticing how many of the people accepting my invitations were people I've never seen, met, worked with, heard of, or invited to join my LinkedIn network.

But that's okay, I thought -- the whole point of this thing is to make connections, right? More connections means more potential contacts come job-hunting time!

A few weeks went by, and before long the strangers in my network were by far outnumbering the distant acquaintances, while the people I actually know were huddled in a dark corner. Who are all these people? Who invited them to my network?

It seems -- and I don't know if this is accurate or not -- that LinkedIn has been rifling through my gmail account and inviting everyone I've ever emailed, or has ever emailed me, to join my network, without asking me. LinkedIn is acting on its own. It's gone rogue!

This includes the other people who happened to be included on mass mailings that I was on but who I don't necessarily know -- big email threads to 150 wedding guests, "dear everyone I know I changed my email please update your records" emails, the people who signed the email list for my band, etcetera etcetera.

I got so many emails from LinkedIn that after a couple days I made a filter in my gmail account to put them all into their own folder so I could deal with them all at some later date, and for a couple of weeks I forgot about it. Then, I peeked into that gmail folder and saw hundreds of emails with the same subject line: Learn about Such-And-So, your new connection! I only recognized about one out of ten names.

I assume that LinkedIn is doing this to everyone, and that everyone on it, like me, has a database made up of between 50 and 200 actual business contacts that they would actually call in the course of a job search, and 5,000 total strangers.

So, if LinkedIn is trying to connect everyone to everyone else -- and the evidence suggests that it is -- eventually everyone on LinkedIn is a contact, and thus, no one is a contact. Right? Is contacting a total stranger just because they're in my LinkedIn network any likelier to get me hired than replying to a craigslist posting?

Thanks, LinkedIn. I never thought anything could make me grateful that I've been keeping my bartending skills sharp all these years.